Brains: Elastic or Hardwired?

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Male Brain: Click to enlarge

Female Brain: Click to enlarge

In 2009, I received a Master of Education in an area called “Teaching and Learning.”  It’s is a fascinating and growing field as more and more research pours in from both scientists and teachers.  At the time, I found an emerging idea–brain based gender differences–interesting enough to do my own research.

If I had to summarize everything I learned in one sentence, it might go something like: “Research has shown that there are biological sensory and brain differences in boys and girls that affect they way they learn, but these differences are far from hardwired.”  I say this because a documented difference, at a single point in time, will not necessarily persist through childhood to adolescence and into adulthood—to say nothing of a lifetime.

Brains are elastic.  They are constantly growing and changing in response to environmental stimuli.  It is this elasticity that trumps any tendency or aptitude at a single point in anyone’s life.  I thought it important to share that.  The following is meant to be informative, instructive, and hopeful.  Nothing else.

That said, in 1989, by publishing, Brain Sex, one of the first books compiling scientifically documented differences between male and female brains, Anne Moir and David Jessel opened a can of worms that continues to wriggle today. In it, they explain that because much of the early insight we gained about the brain came from the “laboratory of the battlefield,” and since most injured soldiers were men, most of our early knowledge about the brain was specific to the male brain.

But even as early as 1964 psychologist Herbert Lansdell discovered that, “. . . men and women, when damaged in the same area of the brain, were differently affected.”  For example, men with damage to the left side of the brain often lost much of their command of language.  Women, on the other hand, with damage in the same area, retained most of theirs.

Moir and Jessel’s hypothesis was that innate differences in the brains of children lead them naturally to different interests, which in turn strengthens that aptitude.  For example, they contend that girls learn language earlier than boys because their brains are more efficiently organized for speech.  Then, girls’ aptitude for language is strengthened as they use language more often in play. While boys are outside making engine or animal noises and crashing, chasing, tumbling, throwing and kicking things around girls are often working out who will play what relational role (“Okay, this time you be the mommy and I’ll be the baby . . .”).

Moir and Jessel suggest that because language (both reading and speaking) is learned more through sound than sight, when it comes to learning to speak and read:  “. . . the structure of the female brain gives girls the advantage.  This learning function resides in the left hemisphere of the brain. . . their more natural female strength, which is hearing, not seeing.”

But is all this really true?  We all know articulate boys who are great readers.  We also know girls who struggle.  So this can’t be universal.  But is there any truth to it at all?  In general are girls really better at reading and language than boys?

In my quest to find out, I did my own research. I measured lots of things, but as long as this post is about language, one thing is clear (with my students anyway): girls read more than boys.

Using a fun website called,, over time, I asked my eighth grade students to “collect and shelf” every book they’ve ever read (in their lifetime) and tally them up.  On average, girls remembered reading 52.5 books. Boys tallied just 25.5—about half as many.

Because boys and girls filter stimuli differently, they often also experience the world differently.  Absent the right encouragement at the right time, these experiences will support repeated behaviors, interests and, eventually, aptitudes.  Nature can be a powerful predictor. Still, it’s always nurture that has the final say.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: .


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  1. I’ve always found brain studies fascinating, such as the best time for children to learn another language or dabble in music and how those things change the brain pathways. I learned some interesting things here, such as the damage to a particular part of the brain triggers different things for men and women (hmmmm….) and your observational skill are spot on – great post!

  2. The male brain photo is a 404 file not found.