1 HIt, 1 Miss for the EMB Theory
Simon Baron-Cohen’s Extreme Male Brain theory proposes that autistic people have an amplification of cognitive features considered typical of males. Associated with this conjecture about cognitive behavior are conjectures about brain anatomy, i.e., that brain regions which differ, on average, between the males and females whose brains have been studied, will also differ between autistic and non-autistic people.
“Biological Sex affects the Neurobiology of Autism,” an article by Baron-Cohen and colleagues, describes findings from a study that examined brain anatomy via MRI scans.
Excerpts from the abstract and article:
This study seeks to answer two questions about how autism is modulated by biological sex at the level of the brain:
(i) is the neuroanatomy of autism different in males and females? and
(ii) does the neuroanatomy of autism fit predictions from the ‘extreme male brain’ theory of autism, in males and/or in females? . . .
Neuroanatomical features . . . were compared in a sample of equal-sized high-functioning male and female adults with and without autism [30 people in each of the four groups]. . . .
We found that the neuroanatomy of autism differed between adult males and females. . . . [which] suggest[s] that autism manifests differently by biological sex.
The EMB theory proposes that autism represents an amplification of specific aspects of typical sexual dimorphism in cognition (e.g. empathy and systemizing). . . . Atypical features in females, but not males, overlapped with areas showing typical sexual dimorphism in controls, confirming predictions from the EMB theory in females but not in males.
Here’s my translation with commentary. Caveat: I am far from being an expert in this field.
Translation. The Extreme Male Brain theory proposes that autism represents an amplification of what the authors claim is “typical sexual dimorphism in cognition,” i.e. that autistic people have an amplification of cognitive features considered typical of males. Associated with this theory is the prediction that autistics, on average, will have “more masculine” brain anatomy. The study found that this prediction held for the group of autistic women studied, but not for the group of autistic men studied.
Commentary. In her article “Venus and Mars or Down to Earth: Stereotypes and Realities of Gender Differences,” the psychologist Susan Fiske remarks that “Psychological scientists, like lay people, often think in categorical dichotomies that contrast men and women and exaggerate the differences between groups.” In my opinion, the language of the Baron-Cohen et al. article suggests these categorical dichotomies. In particular, the term “typical sexual dimorphism in cognition” suggests that human cognition has two types—male and female. But, there are many features of human cognition for which “typical sexual dimorphism” appears to be non-existent or very small. This has been documented by the psychologist Janet Hyde in an article called “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis” and further discussed by the neuroscientist Lise Eliot in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain. A recent interview of Eliot in which she discusses brain differences and non-differences is here.
And, in earlier work, Baron-Cohen found that about half of the non-autistic women in his sample had survey responses that classified them as not having “female brains.”