The myth of the ‘trans brain’
The notion that you can identify a transwoman via a brain scan is based on dodgy science and misogynistic stereotypes.
One of the silliest stories the trans lobby likes to tell is that trans people have brains that are more like those of the opposite sex than those of their own sex.
The latest cheerleader for this notion is Michael Walker, from leftie news outlet Novara Media. Last week, he claimed on GB News that there was scientific evidence to prove that transwomen have brains closer to those of females than males.
The context for Walker’s newfound interest in neurology was the decision by the Green Party to put forward Melissa Poulton as a candidate for a Midlands constituency. Melissa (aka Matt Viner) had inspired the social-media hashtag #BlokeInAWig, which might seem cruel had Melissa not apparently tried so hard to dress up as a character from The League of Gentlemen.
Walker’s ‘trans brain’ claim has a few flaws. For a start, even if it were true that transwomen generally have brains that are closer to those of females, how would that prevent a non-trans male throwing on a wig and saying he is trans? This theory does nothing to solve the problem of gender ‘self-ID’ being abused for any number of reasons. It’s not as if political candidates have to undergo brain scans – a fact for which the Green Party should be eternally grateful.
The claim also assumes that there are male and female brains to begin with. But while there are a few recognised differences between women’s and men’s brains in general, such as overall size and the thickness of cortical layers, the variations among the brains of each sex are so numerous and varied that neurologists dislike the notion of typical male or female brains. Walker no doubt considers himself an advocate of women’s equality, but in his attempt to promote the trans agenda he has ended up reinforcing outdated notions about women’s biology.
So where did the story of the trans brain come from? In the mid-1990s, a group of scientists at the Free University in Amsterdam announced that they had made a remarkable discovery about the brains of transsexuals. The researchers, who included Professor Louis Gooren and the wonderfully named Dick Swaab (who says nominative determinism is dead?), had been studying tiny slivers of the brain taken from deceased transsexuals.
When they looked under the microscope, they say they found that the ‘volume of the central subdivision of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis’ in transsexual women’s brains was more like that in females than males. It was only later that critics pointed out that all the transsexuals Gooren and Swaab studied had been on sex-change hormones for years. Most of them for decades. There was no way to know whether the apparent similarity between their brains and those of women was caused by exposure to estrogen. Given the injections also caused them to develop breast-like tissue, why would it not have changed their brains in some way?
Worse still, the team’s ‘discovery’, which is still being cited decades later by the trans lobby and gullible left-wing journalists, has never been replicated. Despite innumerable attempts to replicate it, using ever-more sophisticated scanning technology, this alleged revelation remains a total one-off.
This matters. In science, a single lab discovery isn’t considered proof of anything. It’s only the start of a process by which other researchers across the world attempt to repeat the experiment in order to corroborate its findings.
If a lab discovery can’t be replicated then the most common explanation is either fraud or sloppy lab techniques. There’s no suggestion of these in Gooren and Swaab’s work. Instead, their finding hints at a common problem in science: unwitting bias can lead even the best of researchers to overinterpret or misinterpret their data.
For instance, in the 1900s, the great American engineer and inventor, Thomas Edison, became convinced he’d found a way to communicate with ghosts in the spirit realm. ‘I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us’, he said in a 1920 interview. He’d actually discovered background radiation, or what we now call white noise – the crackle between radio stations and the tingly mosaic that appeared on old TVs when the channels stopped broadcasting.
The fact that Edison believed in ghosts meant he interpreted the phenomenon he was observing through that prism. The same sort of wishful thinking may explain Gooren and Swaab’s findings. They both lent their support to trans-rights campaigns and Gooren, before his death in September, had expressed pride that their discovery had made transsexuality ‘more socially acceptable’.
Gooren and Swaab apparently never considered the possibility that at least some of the transsexuals they studied might just be confused homosexuals who suffered with internalised homophobia. In an interview, Gooren described how the transmen he studied always brought ‘very attractive women along’ to his clinic. This appeared to him to be proof that transmen were really men. So, lesbians don’t have attractive girlfriends?
This attitude is all the stranger given the Amsterdam team originally set out to study homosexuality. They began studying the brains of mice and rats to see if they could find some biological or genetic marker for homosexuality. You might think studying rodents to shed light on homosexuality is absurd. And it is. It’s also a practice that began in the 19th century and has been infused with dodgy assumptions ever since. Dominant females are considered lesbian, submissive males homosexual. If your work employs such crude stereotypes you might well be prone to accepting gender-identity theory, which is all about crude stereotypes.
The intellectual laziness of the Dutch brain researchers is summed up in Swaab’s 2015 book, We Are Our Brains. In it, he cites the work of Swedish researchers who he claims support his discovery of the ‘trans brain’. He then describes how a group of transwomen were scanned in fMRI machines and had male sex pheromones blown over their faces. The brains of these biological males then ‘lit up’ in the way they might if they were heterosexual women. Swaab and the Swedish researchers do not appear to have considered the rather obvious possibility that some of the transwomen scanned were just homosexual men, whose brains would also have lit up if they got a whiff of male pheromones.
You’d think work that was so confused, stereotyped and non-reproducible would have withered on the vine. Instead, Gooren and Swaab’s claim that there is a ‘trans brain’ has proved hugely influential. It was, for example, one of the main arguments cited by academics in 1997 when they met at the Tavistock clinic in London and embraced what has become known as the Dutch Protocol. This is what we now call ‘gender-affirming care’, which recommends the prescription of puberty blockers to gender-confused teenagers. It was this event that launched gender-affirming care internationally.
The Dutch research was also cited during the passage of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act in 2004. More recently, when the Endocrine Society intervened to support the use of puberty blockers in the Keira Bell High Court case in 2021, it too cited the Dutch trans-brain ‘discovery’, even though it was nothing of the sort.
The man who led the Endocrine Society’s intervention in the Bell case, Dr Joshua Safer, just so happens to run a gender-identity clinic which offers puberty blockers and surgical interventions to young people. He also seems to have an odd, two-sided appraisal of the trans-brain theory. When he is talking to the public, Safer is happy to push the idea that Gooren and Swaab’s work is proof that trans identification has a biological basis. But when he talked to an audience of medical students about the same microscope slides last year, he was careful to point out that the findings have never been reproduced. He even dismissed it as ‘the weakest data, but still pretty pictures’.
So there you are. Credulous left-wingers, along with the combined might of the LGBTQ+ lobby, are happy to promote evidence that one of the leading global experts in ‘gender-affirming care’ admits is no more than ‘pretty pictures’. Meanwhile, these supposed progressives are totally unconcerned that a billion-dollar industry is giving life-changing treatments to, and even performing surgeries on, effeminate young boys and tomboyish girls, all on the basis of garbage brain science.
The uncritical acceptance of such threadbare research by the left is remarkable. Not least because there are almost no studies into what is happening right now to the brains of the vulnerable young people who have been put on Big Pharma’s puberty blockers. You’d think any left-winger worth his salt would care about that.
Malcolm Clark is a TV producer. Follow his writing on Substack.
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