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Sexual Dimorphism and Language;

implications of existing sex differences


in performance and associated neural
substrates.
Tyler Mosdell 20947733
University of Western Australia, Neuroscience

Sexual dimorphism is a concept which has been known to underpin


innumerable heterosocial and homosocial intra-specie interactions (Agren
et al., 1999). Primary examples of this come in the form of gross
morphology as is common in order Lepidoptera, or Galliformes, with wing
patterns or plumage respectively (Gilbert and Schneiderman, 1961; Wiens,
2001). It has long been noted that these features largely determine the
mating success of an individual and thus place a large evolutionary
pressure on the continuation of such characteristics (Gilbert and
Schneiderman, 1961; Wiens, 2001). With a number of such examples
being present across a range of not only species but phyla, it can be
inferred that such characteristics role in evolution will continue to exist. A
key area of research in this field which appears to still be, somewhat, in its
infancy, is the application of these well understood concepts to humans.
The ubiquity of human examples is underpinned by the fact that as a
species, we have moved towards a high sensory dependence, particularly
in relation to communication (Hinde, 1974). As a result of this, it has been
found that dimorphism exists to a great extent in both language and, still
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to some extent, physical characteristics, associated with social relations


(Ardila et al., 2011; Baron-Cohen, 2009; Giedd et al., 1997; Weiss et al.,
2003; Gouchie and Kimura, 1991; Perrett et al., 1998). Whilst the latter of
these is something quite thoroughly explored, language based
dimorphism appears a relatively young concept, seeming to have only
been formally been explored over the last 30 years. Recently, this
difference in language ability between sexes has been linked to disparity
in gross cortical anatomy of language-associated regions (Harasty et al.,
1997). The implications of exploration in this area are able to lend credit
to the previously unsubstantiated notions to the effect of males and
females learning differently.

With the primary research base of human sexual dimorphism tending


towards facial and other gross morphological characteristics, subjective
areas of research such as cognitive abilities have been, until recently,
largely unexplored (Perrett et al., 1998; Rhodes et al., 2003). Studies have
frequently found three areas of major difference; language processing,
spatial processing and arithmetic ability, favouring females, males and
males respectively (Halpern, 2013). It has been found that females have
higher performance specifically in verbal processing tasks, fluency and
vocabulary and word list-learning tasks (Ardila et al., 2011). The fact that
apparent increased capacity for language processing exists in discrete
areas of language implies that the dimorphism exists in such a way that it
effects particular areas of language (Halpern, 2013). This is supported in,

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what were originally seen to be controversial, findings showing little to no


statistically significant difference between male-female general verbal
ability tests (Ardila et al., 2011). Whilst this was originally seen as an
indication that, perhaps, sexual dimorphism does not play as key a role in
language, once coupled with numerous conclusive studies showing
differences in specific areas, it appears to have acted as an initial probe
into the mechanisms at play. A number of subsequent studies were able to
validate the statistical findings of the language tests, and as a result,
great interest has been placed on correlating these findings with
anatomical differences underlying such dimorphism (Gouchie and Kimura,
1991; Gur et al., 1999). Gross morphology of language-related cortical
regions were analysed, specifically the superior temporal gyrus and
inferior frontal gyrus. Preliminary findings indicated 17.8% (P=0.04) and
20.4% (P=0.05) larger cortical volumes respectively (as a proportion of
total cerebral volume) in females (Harasty et al., 1997). Looking
specifically at the superior temporal gyrus, it was found that the increased
volume was attributable to a 29.8% (P=0.04) increase in planum
temporale (PT) volume, an area thought to be closely involved in
linguistics (Harasty et al., 1997). Though these results seemed promising,
subsequent research into the exact role of the PT indicated that it played
a much more upstream role in linguistics (Binder et al., 1996). The area
responded equally to both tones and words, and so appeared more closely
related to early auditory processing rather than being a language specific
area (Binder et al., 1996). Though these anatomical findings did not
explain the results of previous studies, they have indicated the presence
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of not only sexual dimorphism in language but of anatomical nature as


well.

In exploring additional areas of cerebral dimorphism it has been found


that not only are there differences in proportional sizes of specific cortical
areas, there are overarching morphological differences in the cortex as a
whole (Gur et al., 1999). A global difference in neural substrates would
account for different areas of language being effected differently. MRI
scans have found that females have a larger proportion of grey matter
than males relative to their intracranial volumes (Gur et al., 1999). Though
these differences are not yet attributable to any particular behavioural
difference, it has been hypothesised that due to grey matters relevance to
computation rather than transfer to physically distant neurons, it could
account for an increased cognitive ability in particular areas (Gur et al.,
1999). This is largely dependent on a number of things; whether language
processing is facilitated primarily through grey matter, and whether areas
of increased grey matter correlate with language regions of the cortex. As
these findings have limited research backing and are based on a number
of critical assumptions, a, perhaps, more pertinent sexual dimorphism, is
that of relative neuron numbers. It has been found that females have, on
average 1.13 times more neuronal processes than males (Rabinowicz et
al., 1999). This concept serves as a viable explanation as to how areas of
language processing in the female brain could have an increased
processing capacity without having a larger measurable volume. Though a
large number of areas were sampled in this study, to further investigate
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this concept in terms of language based areas of interest, more acute


testing of these areas would be required, particularly cortical areas
corresponding to tasks in which females had higher performance.

Whilst these inquiries into the anatomical bases for this language are
understandably important, cognitive performance is not always reflected
in morphology of cortical substrates but rather through interaction with
neural plasticity (Ungerleider, 2002). A key example of this is in musically
inclined individuals, where areas of music-related brain activity are largely
plastic (Rauschecker, 2001). Johnson and Bouchard (2007) provided some
of the most pertinent as well as recent findings in this area. The rationale
behind their study was to demonstrate that a female language advantage
existed independently of general intelligence. Scores in verbal ability,
adjusted to remove the effects of general intelligence, favoured females,
whilst full scores showed little to no sex differences. This indicated that as
general intelligence was able to mask the effects of sex differences in
specialised abilities. With processes involved in general intelligence, able
to compensate for specific language-based abilities, intersex differences in
these abilities may be more to do with the way in which this neural
plasticity is able to compensate, rather than differences in specific
language areas.

This notion, whilst more difficult to validate, is in line with some of the
early theories of sexual dimorphism in language, specifically those of
Sherman (1978). The bent twig hypothesis, as it was known, is based on
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the principal of small environmental cues, during critical periods of


development, equating to large discrepancies in both ability and anatomy.
This is in line with current theories of neural plasticity and has been seen
in a number of other areas of neural development (Johnson and Meade,
1987). The theory continues to state that, with many studies showing that
females talk at an earlier age than males, this early advantage causes a
verbal reliance and results in larger post-developmental differences
(Sherman, 1978). Though this theory does well to explain performance
differences in terms of already-understood concepts of neural plasticity, it
fails to address the cause for the initial, albeit marginal, precocity.

Developmental studies in this area, a seemingly previously neglected


area, have looked at early sex differences in cerebral volume as well as
specific hormone levels at ages between 4 and 18, the widely accepted
critical period for a majority of cognitive development (Giedd et al., 1997).
A number of sex differences were noted, not only in volume comparison of
various areas, but in the growth characteristics (gradient and onset) of
various cortical areas. A difference of interest was that of the basal
ganglia caudate nucleus, which was found to be relatively larger in
females. The caudate nucleus has been previously linked to language,
specifically language control, a key area of importance in the first stages
of speech (Friederici, 2006). With this initial language advantage, as well
as differing rates of neural growth, sex differences could certainly be
explained.

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The notion of sex differences in areas of cognition being present from an


early age is a common one, and though it is measurable on both an
anatomical and performance level, an alternative theory looks at these
performance differences as the result of this notion rather than as the
cause of it (Halpern, 2013). Stereotypes are undeniably play a large
confounding role in a number of gender, race and even social based
studies (Flanagan and Ortiz, 2001). If we consider the method in which
language ability, the basis of this dimorphism, is assessed, a selfpreconceived idea of performance has the propensity to largely effect the
findings of the test. As well as this, a number of tests are particularly
susceptible to confirmatory bias due to their reliance on subjective criteria
assessed by the examiner (Flanagan and Ortiz, 2001). It is possible that
the gender-stereotypes precede gender performance differences and
moreover, cause them. An additional issue with cognitive ability testing is
that it is questionable as to whether ability is being directly assessed or
merely achievement (Baron-Cohen, 2009). Though similar, the distinction
between these two concepts is of paramount importance. The former
indicates a predisposed or underlying capacity whilst the latter has the
propensity to be entirely based on conditioning or learning-opportunities.
Though these notions largely undermine the existence of neuroanatomical
intersex differences, it could be seen to support the idea of neural
plasticity playing a large role, whereby individuals perceived or expected
performance would impact their actual performance, the knock on effect
of which could cause long term differences in neural capacity for
associated tasks.
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With a number of theories seeking to explain these difference through


various approaches with various degrees of success, it does raise the
question of how these theories fit together. Despite each studies failings,
they have all succeeded in indicating statistically significant variation
between males and females language ability as well as highlight
anatomical cortical differences. Whilst the end goal of these studies has
consistently been to explain already-well-recorded differences in malefemale cognitive performance in terms of measurable neural
characteristics, the question should still be asked as to whether this is
particularly pertinent. Scientific curiosity aside, the implications of these
studies, lie in the consequences of these differences when examined
under natural settings (Martell, Lane and Emrich, 1996). That being said,
the concepts responsible for these differences do still hold some value as
the implications of these sex differences do slightly vary with respect to
the basis of the differences.

With the current evidence presented on sexual dimorphism with relation


to language, it has been shown to a reasonable degree of certainty that
these differences do exist, and whilst the neurological substrates
responsible have not been formally identified, to a high degree of
certainty, they have certainly been generally implicated. A number of
studies have, therefore, focussed research into the implications of the
existence of these differences (Baron-Cohen, 2005; Brown and Corcoran,
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1996; Harrison and Tunbridge, 2007). One of the obvious areas it raises
questions in is gender equality. Do the ability differences discussed
provide grounds for some areas of inequality, or, conversely, are
inequalities further promoting these differences? Brown and Corcoran
(1996) used longitudinal studies to investigate differences in school
content between males and females. It was found that, tending to the
previously found areas of strength, males were exposed to more special
tasks while females towards more language. The study continued to track
their performance in these areas with the ultimate goal of translating
these differences into wage differences in their career placements (Brown
and Corcoran, 1996). Whilst evidence was found for an increase in malefemale performance gaps, these did not equate to the wage gap present.
As this inequality exists external to any measure of performance, it
suggests that it is not as a result of sexual dimorphism but rather an issue
unto itself. Studies highlighting the difference in role placement in jobs,
however, would be more relevant. Education is one of the ideal areas to
look at for this as, all things being equal, particular areas of performance
should be reflected in the areas of teaching placement. In schooling
reviews, it has been found that in general there are 75% more female
teachers than males and yet males make up over 75% of maths and
science teachers (U.S. Department of Education, 2014; Davies and
Meighan, 1975). This is in line with respective areas of performance.
Whether this is something that needs to be changed is largely subjective.
If a particular gender is able to better fulfil a particular role then is it

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incorrect to capitalise on this. An understanding of generalised areas of


strength between sexes would greatly facilitate this.

Because of the integral role language plays in human functioning,


advantages in this area can in fact translate to seemingly unrelated areas.
In this case, links have been made to the prevalence and effect of autism
(Baron-Cohen, 2005). Whilst preliminary findings do not suggest treatment
applications, greater importance has been placed on furthering the
understanding of this disorder (Baron-Cohen, 2009). With females being
generally stronger in abstract, language based areas and males in
systemisation or maths based areas, autism, which exhibits the same
characteristics as an extreme version of the male brain, can be
investigated in terms of these neuroanatomical differences. From this,
models of input-processing-output can be developed to aid understanding
of how to best facilitate, and work to the strengths of both autistic
individuals, and to a milder degree, different sexes.

Mertell et al. have developed computer simulation models of sex


differences in input-processing-output characteristics. By using this as a
tool to assess the impact of differences, pressure can be placed on
correcting gender inequalities caused by these differences. By placing
emphasis on the effects of differences rather than the causes, a greater
understanding of the role they play, can be developed. Whilst being able
to model the effects does not act as a perfect substitute for understanding
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the mechanisms at play, it largely facilitates the same benefits and


capacity for further research.

The prevalence of language impairment in kindergarten children is


estimated at 7.5% (n=2,084) of which boys make up a majority (Tomblin
et al., 1997). With the previously demonstrated snowball effect
language difference is able to adopt, assisting in correcting these
impairments at an early stage would be greatly beneficial (Lenroot et al.,
2007). The use of sexual dimorphism language models, if adjusted for and
applied to, a younger demographic, could provide a unique insight into not
only the effects of the impairment, but development of tailored treatment
plans.

Whilst sexual dimorphism in language has been demonstrated in test


results, as well as in various cortical areas, the full process behind this
concept remains elusive. A resonating point made by a number of studies
however, is that in areas of neural research, the rational or basis for the
exploration has moved beyond exploration for exploration sake (Sherman,
1978). Implications of studies are becoming more important that the
notion of furthering our understanding. On this premise, computerised
models, able to simulate the discrepancies present in this area of sexual
dimorphism, satisfy the criteria without the requirement of understanding
neural processes in their totality. Though the validity of these models
would need assessment, they have the propensity to offer humanity an
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external reference for understanding neurological differences, almost


completely exempt from confounding factors (Flanagan and Ortiz, 2001;
Martell, Lane and Emrich, 1996). With neural research proving to never be
compartmentalised, as would be ideal, it is difficult to associate discrete
areas of sexual dimorphism with anatomical differences. Overall the
research base for sexual dimorphism has moved away from
sensationalising gross anatomical differences, as they appear to offer little
in the way of meaningful implications. With areas of research pushing
forward in using sex differences as a tool to adjust current approaches for
treatment, teaching and understanding based on gender (Vamvakopoulos
and Chrousos, 1993).

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