The Frontal Cortex

The Transgendered Brain

Mike Penner, a sports writer for the LA Times, has decided to become a woman. He will return to the paper as Christine Daniels. He wrote a gripping personal reflection for the paper explaining his decision:

Transsexualism is a complicated and widely misunderstood medical condition. It is a natural occurrence — unusual, no question, but natural.

Recent studies have shown that such physiological factors as genetics and hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy can significantly affect how our brains are “wired” at birth.

As extensive therapy and testing have confirmed, my brain was wired female.

A transgender friend provided the best and simplest explanation I have heard: We are born with this, we fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.

I gave it as good a fight as I possibly could. I went more than 40 hard rounds with it. Eventually, though, you realize you are only fighting yourself and your happiness and your mental health — a no-win situation any way you look at it.

Good for Mike/Christine. I hope he achieves some peace of mind as a woman. But I wonder about some of his assertions. It’s no secret that there are physiological differences between the brains of men and women. (Reasonable people can disagree about the meaning of these physiological differences, but they still exist.) However, I had no idea that, as Mike Penner asserts, “extensive testing” can demonstrate that some males are trapped inside female brains. Is this really a possible diagnosis? I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to this sort of thing. Perhaps some readers can enlighten me?


  1. #1 ThePolynomial
    April 26, 2007

    I haven’t really heard of this testing, but it looks like it should be theoretically possible. From “A Sex Difference in the Human Brain and its Relation to Transsexuality” NATURE, 378: 68-70 (1995):

    “The BSTc volume in heterosexual men (2.49�0.16 mm3) was 44% larger than in heterosexual women (1.73�0.13 mm3) (P 0.005) (Fig. 3). The volume of the BSTc of heterosexual and homosexual men was found not to differ in any statistically significant way (2.81�0.20 mm3) (P=0.26). The BSTc was 62% larger in homosexual men than in heterosexual women (P 0.005)…A small volume of the BSTc (1.30�0.23 mm3) was found in the male-to-female transsexuals (Fig. 3). Its size was only 52% of that found in the reference males (P 0.005) and 46% of the BSTc of homosexual males (P 0.005). Although the mean BSTc volume in the transsexuals was even smaller than that in the female group, the difference did not reach statistical significance (P=0.13).”

    From my skimming, it’s not clear whether it could be conclusively determined from a small BSTc that Christine nee Mike has a female brain, but it would probably be something of a confirmation if a person already feels that they are not of their biological sex.

  2. #2 Whatever
    April 26, 2007

    It’s called gender identity syndrome and is part of the DSM. Basically a psychologist would asses you mental state and determine if the “operation” was appropriate. It turns out you can’t just go get your junk rewired, you need someone to diagnose you with the disorder and then you can be treated. It’s way more complicated then my oversimplified version, but check out the Wiki article for more info.

  3. #3 Jonah
    April 26, 2007

    Thanks for both of those useful bits of information. I guess I’m just curious what “tests” Mike underwent. Was it fMRI imaging? Psychiatric sessions? I’m especially interested if there is some sort of neural correlate for gender identity syndrome that can be reliably identified.

  4. #4 Ontario Emperor
    April 26, 2007

    Not Christine Penner. A different last name will be used also – Christine Daniels.

  5. #5 Jonah
    April 26, 2007

    Thanks for the correction. The post has been fixed.

  6. #6 Frumious B
    April 26, 2007

    Transgender people don’t “decide” to become a gender any more than cisgender people do. You’ve really trivialized Penner/Daniels experience by using that word, and also by referring to her as “he.”

  7. #7 natural cynic
    April 26, 2007

    There are at least three “serious” tests and a number of less serious ones that have been used. Each of them has limitations. Critique here

    In most cases of true transsexuals, tests are not really needed. It’s obvious to a trained therapist.

    Also see Lynn Conway’s trove of resources and commentary. Interesting biography and resources.

  8. #8 Susan H
    April 26, 2007

    The only definitive test is done post mortum. The truth is that transsexuality is self diagnosed with the help of experienced therapists and use of a stardard of care known as the Benjamin Standards. Having said that as one who is transsexual, believe me when you are gender dysphoric you know it in your soul. If anyone tried to convince you that you were the gender opposite of whay you believed yourself to me, could they say anything that would make you believe it? Obviously not. Christine is a woman as am I regardless of bodies we were born with.

  9. #9 Steph
    April 27, 2007

    I asked my friend who works at the Times if he knew anything about this. He didn’t know for sure, but suspected the claim was exaggerated. I asked him to let me know if anything else comes to light.
    He did say that the article was crazy popular and got TONs of hits

  10. #10 Bobbie
    December 16, 2007

    My wife has found it impossible that I could be a woman all along&the he manshe fell in love with.The he-man was nessacary to survive .She blames my 2 brain tumors,prostrate cancer surgery,all my drs7 my therapist to whom I owe my life. I am 64yrs old,& it may kill me but I determined to be in the body ibelong to be in,been on horemones 3yrs,therapy 4.

  11. #11 Rory
    May 16, 2010

    from the documentary “Gender Puzzle”

    “A Dutch study looking at the hypothalamus of six male-to-female transsexuals found they had similar features to female brains. They examined the part of the brain essential for sexual behaviour and found it was the same size in female transsexuals as it was in other women. In men, this region of the brain, known as the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, is much larger. The study suggested that gender identity develops as a result of an interaction between the developing brain and sex hormones. Other studies supported this theory.”

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