It is a myth that boys lag behind in brain development
It is true that girls perform better at school than boys, but this is not due to differences in brain development. This is the conclusion psychobiologist Lara Wierenga draws from a recent study. Publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
It is the first study that directly links brain development to gender differences and school performance. ‘With this research, we disprove the neurological myth that boys are lagging behind in brain development. If teachers and parents become aware of this, we hope this will lead to more equal opportunities for individuals, rather than accepting the misconception that it is all down to a boy's or girl's brain,’ says psychobiologist Wierenga.
Wierenga points to a widespread misunderstanding in the popular media that boys' brains lag behind developmentally compared to girls. This is often taken to explain why girls perform better at school. Wierenga: ‘In this study, we discovered that brain development in boys and girls is very similar.’ Are the differences in school performance between boys and girls perhaps reflected in the structure of their brains, the researchers wanted to know. They found no scientific evidence of this either. ‘We don’t know where the differences in school performance come from, but it isn’t due to a difference in brain development between boys and girls.’ The rate at which parts of the brain develop does show more variation between boys than between girls; there are more boys with delayed or accelerated brain development than girls.
Researching brain development
To discover whether boys lag behind in brain development compared to girls, the researchers tested 217 boys and girls between 8 and 29 years old. They followed them for five years and examined the structure of their brains several times with an MRI scanner. The participants also performed tasks from various school subjects, including a reading task and a task testing numerical memory. This did indeed show that there are often differences in school performance between boys and girls.
Why does school performance differ?
‘The results of the research are important because many misunderstandings arise due to the notion that gender differences in school performance are determined in the brain. For example, girls think that they are not good at maths and are less likely to choose a technical education. This is why we need to look for other factors that could explain the differences in school performance between boys and girls, for example, a difference in training, self-confidence and/or concentration. Studies already show that self-confidence has a major influence.’
Nature or nurture?
Wierenga is currently heading a study involving twins. ‘This research will help us understand the influence of genetic predisposition and what effect training has on, for instance, school performance. The study is also looking at the differences between boys and girls.’