Boys and girls see the world differently.

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looking at my camera 2For years, well meaning social scientists, parents, and teachers have battled for gender equity by giving our girls toy cars and asking our boys to use more colors when drawing. As a parent, I’ve done it myself. Not interested in having a “girly-girl,” we gave our daughter’s second birthday a “Balls and Games” theme. We encouraged physical play. I even made her watch football with me on Sundays. So my wife and I were baffled when Emma, between the ages of two and seven, became obsessed with pretty dresses.

This was not the sort of behavior I was encouraging. Still, the pretty dress phase persisted. All those balls she got for her birthday?  Never touched them. Instead, she gravitated toward (you guessed it) the dress-up chest. This was not how I drew it up.

I didn’t know it then, but apparently it’s not up to me.  New research is beginning to uncover how differently boys and girls experience the world and why kids often end up following gender-based stereotypes–despite our best efforts.

For example, a Cambridge University study attempted to measure day-old baby boys’ and girls’ preferences to look at a dangling mobile or a young woman’s face.  In all, 102 babies were videotaped.  Researchers (ignorant of the children’s genders) then analyzed the tapes, which showed that boys were much more interested in mobiles, and girls were much more interested in the young woman’s face. Based on this study, researchers felt they had “proven beyond a reasonable doubt that sex differences in social interest are, in part, biological in origin.”

Because the study was done on babies so young, researchers were confident that boys and girls are pre-wired to be interested in different things. Follow up research helps explain why day-old boys and girls preferred to look at different things.  Their eyes are made of different types of cells.

Warning: I’m going to get a bit technical now. I apologize.  Stick with me though, and I promise a fascinating conclusion.  Here goes.  Ocular anatomy for dummies:

The ganglion cells in our eyes are of two different types—P and M—each having very different jobs. M-cells, which are larger, are wired to rods and are primarily simple motion detectors. P-cells, which are smaller, are concentrated around the fovea, or the center of the field of vision, and are responsible for collecting information about color and texture.

Recent microscopic analysis shows that the retinas of male and female eyes are quite different. Females have a much higher concentration of P-cells (responsible for colors and textures). Males have many more M-cells (responsible for tracking movement).

Think about it this way: P-cells (denser in females) answer the question, “What is it?”  M-cells (denser in males) answer the question, “Where is it going?”

It’s also interesting to note that these are large differences that hold true across species. Every male animal has more M-cells than every female animal.  Every female has more P-cells than every male.  Dogs, monkeys, hamsters, lizards, people–you name it.

No wonder my daughter enjoyed the rich colors and textures in the dress-up chest over throwing, catching or kicking balls!  Her P-cells were more stimulated by all those colors and textures.  She probably only tolerated watching football with me because the Vikings uniforms are purple and gold.

This phenomenon is also well illustrated (pardon the pun) when comparing boys’ and girls’ artwork. Typically, boys like to draw action—shooting rockets, guns, bullets, chasing—and they prefer to use colors such as black, grey, silver, and blue. Girls will more often use warm colors such as red, green, beige, and brown (and more of them) to draw pictures of people, pets, or landscapes with trees, flowers and houses. In short (and generally speaking, of course): girls draw nouns, boys draw verbs.

Whether it’s a ball sailing through the air or the rich colors of a flower, it turns out that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder–which is a good thing to know before you settle on your toddler’s next birthday theme.

Image Credit: Creative Commons License Sukanto Debnath

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