IS THERE SOMETHING UNIQUE ABOUT THE TRANSGENDERED BRAIN?

At the heart of this debate over how to classify transgenderism is the question, “What causes transgenderism?” Is transgenderism a perfectly natural and inborn condition; is it a consequence of social conditioning; is it a psychological disorder, or is it something else? Until recently, many of those who denied that transgenderism is rooted in a psychological disorder or a hormonal imbalance adhered to behaviorist psychological theories which assumed that an infant’s mind is a blank slate whose social conditioning produces all aspects of personality, including gender.[1] However, recent studies, combined with the discrediting of former studies, have given rise to neurological theories of transgenderism.

 

Despite the fact that the human brain remains so complex that scientists are still trying to understand it, these studies have indicated that the brains of transgendered individuals may be constructed similarly to the gender with which they identify instead of their biological gender. These studies have garnered much media support, but none of these studies have been replicated, and within these studies the authors often discuss the problems with their own research and the fact that their findings cannot prove anything until the findings are replicated.[2] Furthermore, a study from the Stockholm Brain Institute concludes that present data does not support the theory that male-to-female (MtF) transgender brains are feminized. Walt Heyer reports, “The scientists compared the sizes of various areas of brains belonging to MtF transsexuals to brains of heterosexual men and women. The findings: 1) all the males differed in the same ways from the females (no feminization of the transsexuals) and 2) the MtF transsexuals differed from both heterosexual men and women in the area of the brain that processes body perception.”[3]

 

Additionally, neurological theories of transgenderism ignore the fact that the human brain is continually reorganizing itself according to our daily activities. Dr. Norman Doidge observes, “Now we know the brain is ‘neuroplastic’, and not only can it change, but that it works by changing its structure in response to repeated mental experience.”[4] Any similarities in brain structure between a transgender individual and the gender with which they associate does not preclude the possibility that the transgender individual’s brain was conditionally restructured based upon personal habits.

 

Even so, brain structure does not determine reality. Carlos Flores writes, “For example, we may suppose that, through habitually behaving as a sixteen-year-old, the brain activity of the seventy-year-old mentioned above ‘resembles’ that of a sixteen-year-old’s. Does it follow, then, that the seventy-year-old really is sixteen years old? Or that he is really a sixteen-year-old trapped inside a seventy-year-old’s body? Of course not. The most rational conclusion is that such an individual has some sort of cognitive or psychological defect associated with identity and self-perception. The same can be said for the transgender individual.”[5]

 

Wisdom cautions against placing too much weight at this time upon any scientific study because there simply is an insufficient degree of reliable data. Popular as the neurological theories of transgenderism may be, it could be that they are premised upon a faulty assumption that there is such a thing as a typical male brain thinking pattern and a typical female brain thinking pattern. According to an NBC News article titled “Can You Tell Which Brains Are Male? Neither Can These Scientists”:

Scientists who tried very hard to find differences between male and female brains said they couldn’t do it — not with brain scans and not even by asking seemingly obvious questions such as whether someone likes boxing or worries about his or her mother.

They couldn’t find any single pattern that distinguishes between a male brain and a female brain, and say only a very small percentage of people fall under clear all-male or all female [sic] brain patterns.

“Our study demonstrates that although there are sex/gender differences in brain structure, brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females, nor are they aligned along a ‘male brain-female brain’ continuum,” Daphna Joel of Tel Aviv University and colleagues wrote. … “In other words, even when considering highly stereotypical gender behaviors, there are very few individuals who are consistently at the ‘female-end’ or at the ‘male-end’, but there are many individuals who have both ‘female-end’ and ‘male-end’ characteristics,” they wrote.[6]

Similarly, an article in The Scientist titled “Sex Differences in the Brain” notes:

[W]hile both the popular and scientific presses make reference to “male” and “female” brains, the brain is in reality not a unitary organ like the liver or the kidney. It is a compilation of multiple independent yet interacting groups of cells that are subject to both external and internal factors. This is abundantly true for hormonal modulation, with many and varied signal transduction pathways invoked. As a result, it is quite literally impossible for the brain to take on a uniform “maleness” or “femaleness.” Instead, the brain is a mix of relative degrees of masculinization in some areas and feminization in others.[7]

 

At this point we simply do not have enough objective data to conclusively determine a cause for transgenderism. This is the conclusion of Dr. Jack Drescher, a psychiatrist who was part of the American Psychiatric Association’s work group on gender identity. Dr. Drescher admits, “‘The truth is we actually don’t know what it is. Is it a mental disorder or does the cause of gender dysphoria lie somewhere else? We don’t know what causes it…’”[8] Theories abound, but we should continually keep in mind that these are merely theories. In the meantime, we are compelled to rely upon the only objective data that we have. As Jazz Shaw comments, “Falling back on the unfathomable intricacies of something as unbelievably complicated as the human brain isn’t going to make some scientific case that you were born in the wrong type of body. The fact is, we still only have a few obvious things to go on when determining your gender: an examination of your private parts and a chromosome analysis.”[9]

Related Paper: “Is Transgenderism a Mental Disorder?

This article is excerpted from the book Transitioning: A Biblical Understanding of Transgenderism.

Timothy Zebell

Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. Conway, Lynn. “What Causes Transsexualism?” IEEE Solid State Circuits 4, no. 7 (2003). Accessed June 2, 2016. http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TScauses.html.

2. Family Research Council. “The Scientific Objectivity and Universality of Gender Difference.” Youtube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTzDM6XfqxE&feature=youtu.be (accessed May 30, 2016).

3. Heyer, Walt. “Data Shows Male to Female Transgender Brains Are Not Feminized.” Sex Change Info blog, October 24, 2015. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://waltheyer.typepad.com/blog/2015/10/data-shows-male-to-female-transgender-brains-are-not-feminized-1.html.

4. Doidge, Norman. “Brain Scans of Porn Addicts: What’s Wrong with This Picture?” The Guardian, September 26, 2013. Accessed May 25, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/26/brain-scans-porn-addicts-sexual-tastes.

5. Flores, Carlos. “The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique.” Public Discourse, February 6, 2015. Accessed May 17, 2016. http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/02/14305/.

6. Fox, Maggie. “Can You Tell Which Brains Are Male? Neither Can These Scientists.” NBC News, November 30, 2015. Accessed June 2, 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/health/mental-health/can-you-tell-which-brains-are-male-neither-can-these-n471751.

7. McCarthy, Margaret. “Sex Differences in the Brain.” The Scientist, October 1, 2015. Accessed May 13, 2016. http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/44096/title/Sex-Differences-in-the-Brain/.

8. Jayson, Sharon. “What ‘Transgender’ Means, and How Society Views It.” USA Today, September 5, 2013. Accessed June 18, 2016. http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2010/01/19/deleting-a-gene-can-turn-an-ovary-into-a-testis-in-adult-mammals/.

9. Shaw, Jazz. “Don’t Expect a Brain Scan to Tell You if You’re ‘Transgender’ or Not.” Hot Air blog, December 1, 2015. Accessed June 2, 2016. http://hotair.com/archives/2015/12/01/dont-expect-a-brain-scan-to-tell-you-if-youre-transgender-or-not/.