Do Sciences and Humanities Students’ Brains Differ?

By Neuroskeptic | August 4, 2014 5:05 pm

Scholars on both sides of the science-humanities divide have been known to feel that their counterparts just don’t think in the same way. But could it be that their brains are actually different?

Yes, it could, say Japanese neuroscientists Hikaru Takeuchi and colleagues, who have just published a paper about Brain structures in the sciences and humanities

They report that there are significant group differences in brain structure between undergraduate students studying sciences vs. humanities subjects. Specifically, the scientists had more grey matter in the medial prefrontal cortex (p=0.035), but their humanist counterparts had a higher white matter density around the right hippocampus (p=0.018). On average.


These data came from a large study of 491 undergrads, all of whom had a structural MRI scan. Age, sex, and overall brain volume were controlled for in the analyses – which is good.

What does this mean? Takeuchi et al say interpret these results in the light of Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Empathizing-Systematizing” theory. According to this model, some people are drawn to impersonal systems, so these people tend to like science, and are also more likely to be autistic. Whereas the humanities subjects, being about people, appeal to the more empathic types, the ‘people persons’.

And so we read

Our hypothesis of structural differences in science students was confirmed, to some extent, and the present results with science students are similar to those of previous meta-analysis studies of individuals with autism…

The increased regional grey matter volume observed in the science students may be associated with lower empathizing, but the higher visuospatial ability of these students may also be associated with this structural characteristic.

Even fetal testosterone gets a mention. It’s all quite interesting, albeit rather phrenological, but the differences are only marginally significant (despite a large sample size).

Also, to get these significant blobs, Takeuchi et al applied voxel-based morphometry (VBM) with statistical cluster correction at p=0.05 over a voxel uncorrected threshold p=0.0025, justifying this with a reference to a methods paper, Silver et al (2011). However, Silver et al in fact recommended a more strict voxel threshold of 0.001; and they didn’t study 0.0025 at all, but they did warn that less stringent thresholds produce more false positives.

ResearchBlogging.orgTakeuchi H, Taki Y, Sekiguchi A, Nouchi R, Kotozaki Y, Nakagawa S, Miyauchi CM, Iizuka K, Yokoyama R, Shinada T, Yamamoto Y, Hanawa S, Araki T, Hashizume H, Sassa Y, & Kawashima R (2014). Brain structures in the sciences and humanities. Brain structure & function PMID: 25079346

  • KD

    I can’t account for lower empathizing since at least from my own biased perspective it’s something I can do quite well and I’m socially fine, but I DO have visuospatial ability in the 99th percentile as per the results of an IQ test I took as a child. 3.69 GPA, 163 quantitative GRE, have a BS in biology and am continuing to a PhD, female.

    Given what I know of the functions of the OFC (the bright areas cover Brodmann areas 10 and 11) and the hippocampus, I’m not sure how the hell they get from ‘sci = more OFC, humanities = more hippocampus’ to ‘SCIENTISTS R AUTISTIC LOL’ except with the already conveniently provided hypotheses of Simon Baron-Cohen, who is… kind of out there.

    • Dylan Thomas

      Ironic. You’re calling them out for making leaps and bounds with their connections by…making leaps and bounds with your connections. It said “more likely to be autistic”. Hotter does not mean hotter than the sun. Colder does not mean literally the antarctic. Higher likelihood does not mean definitely going to happen. Also, doesn’t it follow that those with less empathy for the abstract nature of human emotion would be more attracted to impersonal, rigid systems?

      • KD

        You’re making leaps and bounds with my own statement.

        Higher likelihood of a phenomenon happening does not consign an entity to succumb to that phenomenon, but when you look at a group, if a phenomenon is more likely to happen, you expect to see more of said phenomenon.

        My point is that given the many other phenomena associated with the autism spectrum and the relative gravity of making such a statement about an entire group of people, it seems absurd to make the leap from gray or white matter volume to autism without even looking at other factors.

        Also, no, it does not even slightly make sense to put ‘impersonal systems’ and ‘human empathy’ on some kind of continuum, and consider that there are many areas in which the two, er, ‘concepts’ must coexist.

  • Dave Langers

    Cluster-level thresholds for VBM, as employed by the authors, are shaky at best ( ), possibly explaining why VBM always seems to result in many more positives than expected, over numerous fields ( ).
    At the same time, the prefrontal area shown doesn’t look too bad (spatially extensive, not just a tiny round spot like that midsagittal parietal one); some literature has much worse.
    I’ve always made a distinction between neuroimagers who get excited about many activation blobs, and those who get suspicious. So, I wonder whether “science-like” neuroscientists would interpret this study differently from “humanity-like” neuroscientists…:)

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for the comment. The PFC blob is large, but it does seem to extend (and have its peak) outside of the brain…? It would worry me if it were an fMRI blob. But is that standard for VBM?

      • Neuroskeptic

        P.S. That is really me.

      • Dave Langers

        I certainly do not claim to be a VBM-expert*, although perhaps a VBM-cynic :), but the superficial nature of the peak wouldn’t worry me too much.
        VBM operates on modulated grey matter “volume” measures. I don’t think anyone can really explain what is quantified actually, given that it is based on some probabilistic assignment of tissue compartments. But a relevant other ingredient (the “modulated” bit) is that it is corrected for distortions that occur during warping to the standard space. This warp is smooth, which means that the local parameters at the site of the voxel are not just driven by that voxel alone, but also its broader neighbourhood. Thus, in the processing pipeline nearby voxels get intertwined, and a voxelwise significance in VBM should in my view be seen as a pointer that something is going on in that general vicinity.
        Moreover, the background of that image is one average image. It could well be that the surrounding “CSF-like” area has a low but non-zero probability of being GM. (The authors used some minimum threshold for GM content, I believe.) So it could still be that one subject group was more likely than the other to have some GM protruding outward in that area, for instance. Not sure how convincing that sounds as an anatomical hypothesis, but it would probably lead to some superficial peakiness like that shown.

        Still, a golden (but conservative) rule: don’t trust anything until it can be routinely reproduced by others. :) As far as VBM goes, the effects of aging are such an example; I do not know too many more.

        *: As a disclaimer, I originally am a physicist rather than neuroanatomist, and my opinion of VBM is largely based on a review I was recently involved in, focusing on its application to tinnitus. Despite prevalent significant findings in individual studies there, none of those effects proved very reproducable across studies. I suspect this might be typical for those applications where structural abnormalities would be expected to be tiny at best.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Well, that answers my question! Thanks.

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  • captainhurt

    The fallacies here are that empathy and science is zero-sum, that they are at-odds, and that one must behaviorally dominate the other.

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  • Franck Ramus

    I would like to see the same analysis with IQ (and then other cognitive abilities) as a covariate.

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  • Tedd

    I wonder what would happen in the brain of interdisciplinary students…let’s say the classics and computer science majors at Stanford? Are simple this group of people better because they have the two types of brains?



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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