According to the nursery rhyme, little girls are made of ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ – while boys are made of ‘slugs and snails and puppy dog tails’. Of course, this isn’t scientific fact. However, neuroscience is discovering that there are gender differences that are less obvious than visible physical characteristics.
It is well-known that girls mature faster than boys. We can see this from the evidence of physical changes if we visit a Year 7 classroom. With a few exceptions, 11-12-year-olds are largely an assortment of post-pubescent, apparently mature young women, and pre-pubescent immature little boys, despite sharing the same ages. If there are differences in body development, what differences are there in brain development and psychological maturity?
Newcastle University scientists have discovered that girls’ brains begin maturing at the age of 10, whereas some men don’t experience the same development of those organisational structures until they are 20. In other words, girl’s brains can develop up to ten years sooner than boys’.
Newcastle University was experimenting on how the brain stores information when researchers discovered that brain maturation ‘prunes’ information and focuses on what is important.
“We found there is a difference between boys and girls in terms of development,” Dr Marcus Kaiser said. “We found that the brain begins to prune neural connections which it does not think are important.”
This may happen when a girl is 10 years old, but in the case of boys, the same process may not occur until they are 15-20 years old.
During this pruning process, similar memories, sounds or sights appearing several times in the brain are shut down. This is useful in ridding the brain of extraneous or duplicated information. Important connections, such as linking a familiar person’s voice to their face, are preserved.
“The loss of connectivity during brain development can actually help to improve brain function by reorganizing the network more efficiently,” Researcher Sol Lim said. “Say, instead of talking to many people at random, asking a couple of people who have lived in the area for a long time is the most efficient way to know your way. In a similar way, reducing some projections in the brain helps to focus on essential information.”
“Previous studies have shown that the brain does a lot of re-organising during puberty. There is greater activity during this time,” said Dr Kaiser. “But it was rather unexpected to find that these changes were starting much earlier in girls, in comparison with boys. Around 10 to 12, you start to see a lot of activity in the brains of girls as this pruning takes place, but it was between 15 to 20 for boys.”
The EPSRC-funded Human Green Brain project examines human brain development. This research work is part of this project, and details are published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Founder, Arthur Coaching
Arthur trains individuals to become professional Young People Coaches. Our mission is to facilitate access to quality leadership coaching for young people.