Call it “neurotrash”, call it pseudoscience, or phrenology for our time, just don’t make any marketing decisions based on it.

Last week, neuro-madness gripped the media as a new brain scan (DTI - diffusion tensor imaging) study reported in the respected PNAS journal found that that young women’s brains appear to be wired differently to those of men.  Great fodder for neuromarketers, now with more clues than ever on how to market to the brain.  The study found that young women were mentally slower than men (in sensorimotor terms), and not good at remembering where things are.  Better make that campaign really obvious then when you’re marketing to women.

The study of 949 youths (8–22 y, 428 males and 521 females) found “fundamental sex differences in the structural architecture of the human brain” – specifically that young women’s brains are “optimised” for interhemispheric (cross hemisphere) communication, whilst male brains are optimised intrahemispheric communication.  The study correlated this difference with lower sensorimotor speed for women and error-prone spatial memory tasks.  However, the study did find that young women do seem to be quite good at remembering and thinking about people.

Of course, the scientific community rounded on the article – as reported; we have no clear understanding of how brain structure links to function, so linking brain structure to female thinking prowess (or lack thereof) is little more than a blind leap of faith, and what we do know is that brains aren’t ‘hardwired’ but that ‘wiring’ changes with environment. Critics weren’t claiming that there are no gender differences in brain activity, just making that point that we can’t reliably make the brain-activity to behaviour link (yet).

And of course, the study itself, if people bothered to read it, was a somewhat more nuanced that the hyperbolic reporting.  The authors admit that previous research has been inconclusive with sex differences being insignificant, and the sex differences found in their study, although significant, were vanishingly small. Read the Wired magazine writeup and the Guardian article for decent reviews.

For now the the grandiose claim of neuromarketing that brain activity reveals consumer insight into preferences and decision making processes is little more than marketing hype. Caveat Emptor.

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Abstract:

Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain

Sex differences in human behavior show adaptive complementar- ity: Males have better motor and spatial abilities, whereas females have superior memory and social cognition skills. Studies also show sex differences in human brains but do not explain this complementarity. In this work, we modeled the structural con- nectome using diffusion tensor imaging in a sample of 949 youths (aged 8–22 y, 428 males and 521 females) and discovered unique sex differences in brain connectivity during the course of develop- ment. Connection-wise statistical analysis, as well as analysis of regional and global network measures, presented a comprehensive description of network characteristics. In all supratentorial regions, males had greater within-hemispheric connectivity, as well as en- hanced modularity and transitivity, whereas between-hemispheric connectivity and cross-module participation predominated in females. However, this effect was reversed in the cerebellar connections. Analysis of these changes developmentally demonstrated differ- ences in trajectory between males and females mainly in adoles- cence and in adulthood. Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and co- ordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.