Gender Differences in the Brain

Comment on “Title IX At 40: What Has Changed, And What’s Next” on NPR’s Morning Edition for June 20, 2012 where sports commentator Frank Deford looks back on achievements since Title IX was passed into law, and wonders about the future of collegiate sports given what has happened in the last 40 years. The nervous system may play a role in the ironic consequences of this legislation.


NPR did a series of reports on the significance and effects of Title IX on sports and other aspects of our educational system, as we approach its 40th birthday. NPR Commentator Frank Deford, master writer that he is, acknowledges its tremendous effect on women’s sports. He discusses how the number of women in college sports has increased with the consequent effect of decreasing the number of sports available to men. He raises the specter of more losses in male sports because of the increasingly greater proportion of women attending college now (60% of students). He even raises the possibility that even “King Football” might end up being sacrificed at many schools because of the evidence of brain damage and because “it’s so expensive and has no female analogue.” He also notes the irony in that even though the number of female athletes has greatly increased, there is no “corresponding interest in women watching other women play sports.” He ends his essay with a paraphrased Henry Higgins (My Fair Lady) question, “Why can’t a woman be more like a fan?”

Posted at NPR

I’ll answer Frank Deford’s question “Why can’t a woman be more like a fan?” which stems from a paradox. He asks why is it that Title IX gives more women the chance to play sports, but women don’t watch sports and do not patronize women’s teams, making it extremely difficult for many women’s pro sports to survive. I strongly suspect the answer will lie in our brains. We do not have to turn to genetics to explain why the differences, because most of the difference could still be explained by what we are taught growing up, regardless of our level of athleticism. I say that men watch sports because they imagine themselves on the playing field, but women do not watch for the same reason. For more discussion this topic, including why men want chicken wings when they watch a game on TV, see my blog post “Gender Differences in the Brain” at

Extended Comments

I think that the difference in how men and women view sports is due to how much process over performance is at work in male and female brains. Men like to watch sports because they imagine themselves in that sport, achieving the goal, the pass, putting the ball into the basket. Most women do not do this unless they happen to be athletes in that sport. This is why men don’t tend to watch women’s sports, but women who watch sports on TV, tend to watch both men’s and women’s sports. Thus women’s pro teams would be less likely to be attended by either sex.

Again, the explanation that male brains are programmed for performance and women’s for process is helpful. Just making sports available to women won’t be enough to erase the brain difference. There has to be a strong cultural shift where both men and women are encouraged to develop process, as well as performance.

We have heard of the mirror system in the nervous system, a system of cells that has been proposed to help us “mirror” the actions of others (Gallese, V. et al, 1996, Fabbri-Destro, M. & Rizzolatti, G., 2008). I think that all nerve cells have a representative function that allows some to specialize into these mirror cells more easily. All neurons represent something (person, place, object, concept, sensation, CNS circuit, etc), unlike cells in any other tissue or organ in the body. Men use their mirror system as they imagine themselves playing the sport they watch.

What is interesting about diet in all of this is the possibility that we need animal protein to handle the increased need for repairing tissue if we are active than if we are sedentary (see my blog post Nutrition and Chemistry  for more details). We need vegetable protein for maintenance. A really interesting possibility is that if we watch another person because we need to imagine ourselves doing what they do, our brains signal a need for more animal protein in anticipation of increased activity. Thus, men watching sports will not be satisfied with carrot sticks and a great dip as much as they are with chicken wings, even if they don’t actually need the animal protein because they are sedentary.


Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L. & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119(2), 593-609.

Fabbri-Destro, M. & Rizzolatti, G. (2008). Mirror neurons and mirror systems in monkeys and humans. Physiology , 23(3), 171-1799.

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