Brains are the same for boys, girls

Boys’ brains and girls’ brains are the same, according to neuroscientist Lise Eliot in Springer’s journal, Sex Roles.  There’s no scientific basis for sex-segregated classrooms, she writes.

Although there is no doubt that boys and girls have different interests which shape how they respond to different academic subjects, neuroscientists have had great difficulty identifying meaningful differences between boys’ and girls’ neural processing — even for learning to read, which has been the most studied to date. And although research shows that men and women — not boys and girls — tend towards different self-professed learning styles, there is no evidence that teaching specifically geared to such differences is actually beneficial.

Eliot is the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.

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  1. Almost all of the push I have seen for sex segregated schools is based on the fact that child brains react differently to members of an opposite gender than the same gender. Even if neurologists have not yet detected the mechanism for this, I think we may presume such a difference from observational data.

    That is, if you set up an interaction matrix (boy -> boy, boy -> girl, girl -> boy, girl -> girl) you will observe distinct social interaction / reaction for each one. Is that a scientific basis or not?

  2. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I thought the point of single sex classrooms (at least in middle and high school) was to separate flirting time from academic time! And you can’t tell me there’s no scientific basis for “girls and boys flirt!”

    Also, I thought, in general (things like ADHD aside) boys were usually slower at developing fine motor skills? Perhaps the brains are the same, but the hormones acting on them are different……

  3. I think the weasel word here is “meaningful”. While muscle mass and skeletal anatomy may account for some behavioral differences (people are more likely to attempt what they find easy) a lot of behavioral differences likely depend on differences in brain structure. How does some systematic physical difference relate to behavior? If we cannot see through from structure to behavior, then any observed structural difference is not “meaningful”. Too PC for me.

  4. I don’t think this detracts from the benefits of single gender classrooms. The brains of boys and girls may be the same, but the socio-emotional area of development is not. It doesn’t take a research study to prove that boys and girls think, interact, and emote differently from one another.

  5. From what they say about autism and Aspergers, they affect boys four times more often as girls. And ADHD affects boys 2 to 4 times as often as girls. Researchers are still arguing it, but there have been various findings over the years indicating that dyslexia is more common in boys. So is she only talking about neurotypical children? And how does that help those of us in the real world?

  6. Unfortunately the article is behind a subscription wall but the summary reads about differences in learning and teaching, not the differences that boys and girls have in their interest.
    Form what I take from the summary, boys and girls learn the read about the same way. The differences are there within each gender. Some boys learn to read differently than some other boys, etc.
    I see this played out everyday. Boys take auto tech, girls nursing. Some boy take nursing, some girls are in auto tech (not many). When it comes to reading, some boys read very well, others not so well and the same for the girls.
    Now you take behavioral issues-that might be worth the study.

  7. Unfortunately, I do not have access to the original article currently since it is subscription only, but here’s my seven cents (inflation).

    Assuming you are referring to gross brian anatomy, there is no difference between sexes. Also, from what I have seen in journals, “meaningful” is often used synonomously with statistically insignificant. There are always slight differences between compared groups of subjects.

    The point of the article is to suggest that differences between boys and girls are due to natural variation within the population or societal influence, not that there are no differences at all.

    While I admit again that I have not read the actual piece, I would wager that these are neotropical children so as to not confound the results. As for the significance of the work, I would say that it is to counter the common idea that boys and girls require different teaching styles to effectively learn…and to further erode the idea of multiple intelligences and learning styles.

    • I do support single sex classrooms, though, in middle and high school because of the behavioral problems associated with the onset of puberty.

  8. Cranberry says:

    My sons have had the privilege of attending a single-sex school. The single-sex environment can be tremendously beneficial for boys.

    Boys and girls do differ. Whether it’s due to nature or nurture doesn’t matter when you have a boy who is not flourishing in a curriculum based on journal-decorating group work.

    Our local coed public school did away with recess in third grade. The single-sex private school offers multiple recess breaks through eighth grade. The boys are slimmer, happier, and better able to concentrate on academics, because they’ve had the opportunity to move. I would recommend more recess opportunities for all students. That girls seem to do better than boys in a sedentary classroom setting does not mean that’s the best option for them.


    While I admit again that I have not read the actual piece, I would wager that these are neotropical children so as to not confound the results

    This paper seems to be an argument from the professor’s point of view. It is not a report about a research study. Thus, there are no “results” to report, only the writer’s opinions about the wisdom of basing instructional practices upon current research. Were it a research study, I would expect all the children studied to be right-handed students of European heritage.

    • While this is not a report for a study that she completed, she does reference multiple studies and my statement applies to them. Also note that her emphasis was on instruction, not behavior or culture.

  9. In spite of all the ed courses and advanced degrees, today’s ES-MS teachers don’t seem to understand boys very well, if at all; they seem to have been redefined as defective girls, in need of medication. If there was such a thing as boy repellent, the schools would reek of it; touchy-feely and artsy-crafty to the max – and my daughter hated that stuff just as much. My old maid teachers from normal school and my DH’s nuns (no college grads) knew the academic material to be taught, understood boys and girls and appreciated their differences.

    • Doesn’t the fact that your daughter hated the “feminine” instruction support the idea that there is no significant difference between the sexes in learning?

      • My daughter grew up with three older brothers, was a full-time elite athlete and never played dolls, school or house. She just wasn’t interested in that stuff and her close friends were all teammates. Most of the girls all my kids knew loved the girly stuff, both in play and at school. Like her brothers, my daughter wanted to work on her own, as efficiently as possible and with the least artwork she could get away with. It’s a wonder any of us can look at a shoebox without a panic attack; there were far too many dioramas. Like her brothers, she learned the material (they were all strong students), but she sure didn’t like the classroom methodology any better than they did. She dealt with the world much like the boys did – none of the drama queen, passive-agressive stuff.

      • Maybe her daughter just isn’t inclined to be a teacher of elementary school? 😉 There do seem to be a lot more female than male scrapbookers out there, so I can see where momof4 gets her opinion.

  10. As a graduate of an all women’s college I can tell you that brain differences was not my reason to go there, rather it was my need for freedom from the constant male-female drama of high school. I personally flourished in this environment (with many male professors) and developed a much stronger self image that significantly improved my ability to relate and work with the opposite sex.

    My 7th grader is going to a private school this year – her eyes lit up when I told her that the boys and girls are segregated for gym class. Her shadow day was gym day and the girls played kickball. It was the first time my daughter has ever said that she liked gym.

  11. (Malcolm): “… a lot of behavioral differences likely depend on differences in brain structure.”
    (Supersub): “Assuming you are referring to gross brian anatomy, there is no difference between sexes…”

    Some say otherwise.
    A first study, published in March 2008 found that one subdivision of the ventral prefrontal cortex—an area involved in social cognition and interpersonal judgment—is proportionally larger in women, compared to men. (Men’s brains are about 10 percent larger than women’s, overall, so any comparison of specific brain regions must be scaled in proportion to this difference.)…brain structure correlates as well or better with psychological “gender” than with simple biological “sex”—is crucial to keep in mind when considering any comparisons of male and female brains. Yes, men and women are psychologically different and yes, neuroscientists are uncovering many differences in brain anatomy and physiology which seem to explain our behavioral differences.

    • “brain structure correlates as well or better with psychological “gender” than with simple biological “sex””

      Suggesting that intra-sex differences are greater than inter-sex differences.

  12. Not at all. Most boys identify as boys and most girls as girls. Its a rare individual who does otherwise. In any case, systematic sex-related differences in brain structure are real.

  13. I am the author of the article and would be happy to send you the full-text version if you email me. My address can be found at

    Thanks for your interest in my research.