Do Girls Really Mature Faster? Maybe Not
Let’s take into consideration the societal and environmental influences in which participants are growing.
Never to be outdone, my father once quipped “it’s well known that girls mature faster than boys, but we catch up and pass them pretty quickly.” He thinks he’s hilarious. He’s accepted, albeit reluctantly, the common trope that “girls mature faster than boys,” which has over the years been backed up by neuroscience through brain imaging and observational studies. Aside from the fact that these studies confirm a well-known and accepted bias they haven’t accounted for one confounding variable: neuroplasticity.
The Buddha said that our minds create the world around us to which Gabor Mate adds “but first our world creates our mind.” That is, our minds develop in our childhood through how our parents love us, the village of other children and adults who raise us, and influences from our environment. To take a more biological approach, Mate is talking about neuroplasticity.
Neuropsychologist Dr. Campbell’s definition of neuroplasticity is “the physiological changes in the brain that happen as the result of our interactions with our environment. From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences” — Celeste Campbell (n.d.). I am not an accredited scientist. I read books by scientists, which makes me an ill-informed charlatan, but I do know that new knowledge brings with it new paradigms. We now know that our brains are formed by our experiences at any age and especially in our formative years. Therefore, our approach to learning about the brain ought to take this into consideration.
If we set aside our bias — what we “know” to be true — we will see a much different picture. It’s no secret that boys in our society are influenced directly by parents, relatives, friends, or indirectly through television, movies, and advertising. These sources teach that emotion is at best tolerated or at worst merits punishment. Our culture treats emotions, vulnerability as antonyms to strength rather than synonyms. Our boys are taught from a young age to suppress their emotions and when they can’t express them they cannot be processed forcing these feelings to come out as anger and aggression. Traits we consider common, even acceptable, for young males as we shrug our shoulders to the tune of boys-will-be-boys. This is furthered by popular bestselling authors like Jordan Peterson who states “Well, boys are more aggressive than girls. There’s a biological component that is quite strong. That’s why the vast majority of people in prison are male.” Peterson’s unfounded “biological component” is backward. Boys’ brains are not hardwired for aggression, we wire them that way.
As it turns out adult male and female brains are not so different. In spite of the vastly popular Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus by John Gray, the evidence suggests the contrary and further proven in the last two decades. Gray, who capitalized on the sentiment in a series of follow up books, earned a degree in meditation and an unaccredited Ph.D. by correspondence in 1982 from Columbia Pacific University (CPU), a now-defunct institution. The ideas within were entertaining for readers but founded on harmful stereotypes of the day. In 2005, The American Psychological Association released a statement based on an “analysis of 46 meta-analyses that were conducted during the last two decades of the 20th century underscores that men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership.” They also included in their release that the “Mars-Venus sex differences appear to be as mythical as the Man in the Moon” (APA October 2005).
Let’s not forget our new paradigm: If our brains are plastic, we can work to remodel how our neurons fire. Any one of us can work to foster virtues we feel have been neglected. It seems we are all looking for permission to experience every part of ourselves, emotional, vulnerable, even aggressive. Studies designed to prevent cultural gender norms reveal that our actions intend to fall in line with what is expected rather than biology. For example, when participants were told that their gender would not be associated with their actions in an experiment around aggression, none confirmed to cultural stereotypes. In fact, their actions were the opposite, women were more aggressive and men were more passive.
As an ill-informed charlatan, I propose a new series of studies that take into consideration the societal and environmental influences in which participants are growing to reveal how different if at all, brains develop according to sex.
In the meantime, as we raise our children, let’s celebrate vulnerability as strength, nurturing as courage, unity as power.