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Home » The Biology of Gender, from DNA to the Brain: Karissa Sanbonmatsu (Transcript)

The Biology of Gender, from DNA to the Brain: Karissa Sanbonmatsu (Transcript)

Learn how life experiences shape the way genes are expressed — and what that means for our understanding of gender.

Karissa Sanbonmatsu – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

So what does it mean to be a woman? We all have XX chromosomes, right? Actually, that’s not true.

Some women are mosaics. They have a mix of chromosome types with X, with XY or with XXX. If it’s not just about our chromosomes, then what is being a woman about? Being feminine? Getting married? Having kids?

You don’t have to look far to find fantastic exceptions to these rules, but we all share something that makes us women. Maybe that something is in our brains. You might have heard theories from last century about how men are better at math than women because they have bigger brains. These theories have been debunked.

The average man has a brain about three times smaller than the average elephant, but that doesn’t mean the average man is three times dumber than an elephant or does it?

There’s a new wave of female neuroscientists that are finding important differences between female and male brains in neuron connectivity, in brain structure, in brain activity. They’re finding that the brain is like a patchwork mosaic — a mixture.

Women have mostly female patches and a few male patches. With all this new data, what does it mean to be a woman? This is something that I’ve been thinking about almost my entire life.

When people learn that I’m a woman who happens to be transgender, they always ask, “How do you know you’re a woman?”

As a scientist, I’m searching for a biological basis of gender. I want to understand what makes me me. New discoveries at the front edge of science are shedding light on the biomarkers that define gender.

My colleagues and I in genetics, neuroscience, physiology and psychology, we’re trying to figure out exactly how gender works. These vastly different fields share a common connection — epigenetics.

In epigenetics, we’re studying how DNA activity can actually radically and permanently change, even though the sequence stays the same. DNA is the long, string-like molecule that winds up inside our cells. There’s so much DNA that it actually gets tangled into these knot-like things — we’ll just call them knots.

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