Is Gender All in Your Head? Science Says Maybe.
For most people, gender is very simple as most people identify with the gender that their body indicates that they are. However, imagine waking up, looking in the mirror and feeling that you were in the wrong body. For those suffering from gender dysphoria, this is a daily reality and struggle. Gender dysphoria is a psychiatric condition characterized by a conflict between a person’s physical sex and the gender with which they identify.
Individuals suffering from gender dysphoria, also known as transgenders, do not feel comfortable within their own skin. To rectify this, many seek gender reassignment surgery. Not surprisingly, transgender individuals have a high rate of anxiety and depression.
One transgender individual described “continual inability to get through the day” and a disconnect from their emotions as well as a sense of pointlessness. According to this individual, these symptoms noticeably got better after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. To quote her, “For me, as I transitioned a little, it helped a little. When I presented in a feminine way and took on a feminine identity, I started to come into my own and take shape as a real person. I began to steer my life in a direction that I wanted. It was easier to have goals and things I derived satisfaction from, and this encouraged me to start caring about myself more. I was able to fall in love and have a real relationship for the first time – something I never saw the point of before, and had resigned myself to doing without.”
It seems that once the transgender individual transitions so that their physical appearance takes on the appearance of the gender with which they identify, they experience a great sense of relief. It is unknown as yet what causes this condition, but scientists studying the brains of transgender individuals believe that they have stumbled upon clues that might eventually lead to an answer.
Their are distinct differences between the brain structures of men and women. For example, women have a higher density of neural connections in the hippocampus (the human memory center.) Therefore, women absorb more emotional and sensory information. (Perhaps, the origin of female intuition?) Interesting, a gay man’s brain is more similar to that of a woman’s while a gay woman’s brain is more similar to a man’s. If differences in brain structure are responsible for the differences between men and women as well as the phenomenon of homosexuality, could they also be responsible for transgenderism? A team of Spanish researchers in Madrid discovered that male-to-female transgenders have thinner cortical regions in the right hemisphere of the brain, which is characteristic of women. As one might expect, female-to-male transgenders have thin subcortical areas, characteristic of men.
A more recent study discovered differences in the way the transgender brain responds to touch. In this study, led by Dr. Laura Case at the University of California, a research assistant tapped eight cisgender women on the arm and then breast with a small piece of tapered plastic and then tapped eight pre-op female-to-male transgenders on the arms and then breasts.
In the brains of the transgender individuals, the response to the tap on the breasts had less of a response in the part of the brain responsible for making “self-other” distinctions. According to Dr. Case, ““The brain is not identifying this sensation as ‘me’ as much as it is other parts of the body—and it’s alarmed by it. That’s our read of it.”
This would do a great deal to explain why transgenders experience a sense of anxiety, depression and a disconnect between their physical sex and gender identity. Such research is ongoing as scientists continue to unravel the cause of gender dysphoria.