A recent Japanese study from Tohoku University’s Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer showed evidence that the brains in science and humanities college students may be different in function. This was a somewhat large study, recently published in Brain Structure & Function, which examined 312 science students and 179 humanities students. By using an imaging technique called voxel-based morphometry (VBM), which allows neuroscientists to investigate specific sections of the brain and the different functions of certain sections of the brain, researchers Hikaru Takeuchi and his colleagues found that the science students had larger gray matter volume in clusters within the frontopolar area and medical prefrontal cortex than humanities students. Conversely, white matter volume is greater in the right hippocampus of humanities students than science students. Factors such as age, gender and intracranial volume were controlled in the study.
The researchers stated that these regions of the brain are associated with autism, based on previous studies. According to Discover, Takeuchi and his colleagues suggested the results may support psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s “empathizing-systematizing” theory, which explains that some people are more drawn to empathic systems, such as sociology and psychology, while some people find impersonal systems, such as in sciences like physics and chemistry, more appealing. The researchers stated that their hypothesis of the structural differences among science students was confirmed to some extent, and the results are similar to previous meta-analysis studies of autistics. Apparently, the larger gray matter volume among the science students studied may be “associated with lower empathizing.” However, unlike most autistics, these students seem to have higher visual and spatial acuity, which may be associated with such structure.
While this hypothesis about the different brain function and structure between science and humanities students may require further research, current understanding of the brain may support this study’s findings. Since gray matter makes up the majority of the structure of the brain, neuroscientists have studied this part more than white matter. Gray matter in the top layer of the prefrontal cortex is associated with logic, computation and decision-making. It also deals with memory storage and retrieval and sensory perceptions, such as sight, hearing and emotions. Beneath this layer of gray matter is a large mass of white matter, which is greater in volume than other animals and fills up more than half of the brain.
Myelin is the nerve insulator that gives white matter its color, and neuroscientists had in the past underestimated its function. It was once considered to consist mainly of pathways that provide insulation to the nerves and transmit signals from one part of the brain to another. According to Scientific American author and neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields, recent findings show that nerve impulses can race along the axons of nerve cells 100 times faster if they are wrapped with myelin. The more myelin wrapped between nodes of neurons, the faster and more efficient the signals are transmitted. Any damage or disruption of myelin can lead to mental illness and impaired functions, such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and dyslexia. Douglas also noted a study by professional pianist Fredrik Ullén, who is also an associate professor at the Stockholm Brain Institute in Sweden, that found that white matter regions among professional pianists are more highly developed than non-musicians. Such regions of the brain are required to coordinate fine finger movements with music composition and playing a musical instrument.
Current knowledge and research of the brain may provide some evidence that humanities and science students are different, but this may be a false dichotomy in understanding human neurology and behavior because it does not necessarily explain those who are interested in science yet can also dance or play a musical instrument. Is there a scale in which people can be more empathic or systematic? This may be something science can help explain in the future.
By Nick Ng