Gender Identity as a Brain-in-a-vat


Gender critical feminists (henceforth “GCers”)  are often skeptical about a concept foundational to trans theory: gender identity, the sense of whether we belong to a particular sex/gender or not. GCers are critical of the very idea of having one’s gender be based on your identity as opposed to being grounded in the biological properties of your body. Thus, GCers often define “woman” as an “adult female” where “female” means having certain biological properties such as the capacity to bear eggs, or having the developmental program of egg-production in your DNA-makeup or something like that.

But imagine a GCer named Janice was asleep one night and a group of evil trans neuroscientists decided to kidnap her and whisk her away to a lab, where her brain was extracted from her body and placed in a vat where the biological functions of her brain are supported by a totally artificial body. All that is left of Janice is her brain. No vagina. No breasts. No ovaries or uterus. No capacity whatsoever to make eggs or get pregnant. In many ways her “body” is not gendered at all: it’s just a hunk of brain tissue hooked up to machines. An outside observer would have a hard time determining what the brain’s gender was without knowing its past history as Janice. Furthermore, the evil trans neuroscientists are clever enough as to provide artificial stimulation to the brain such that the brain falsely believes that it actually has a body and is interacting with the world in a normal fashion. Much like Neo being inside the Matrix, Janice would not necessarily “feel” like anything other than her normal self.

What happens to Janice’s sense of identity as a woman now? She once defined her womanhood entirely in terms of biological features which no longer exist. How can she hold onto them? Let’s assume she was given a theoretical knowledge of herself as a brain-in-a-vat by the evil neuroscientists. Perhaps she reasons that her brain still contains the DNA that carries the information needed to reconstruct those body parts she identified with. But in my opinion that’s a terribly flimsy sense of identity, being tied to the mere potential of the DNA in your body to produce something that doesn’t exist. That’s a negative identity, based on that which does not exist. It seems unlikely to be the basis for a strong sense of identity as a man or a woman.

One might think that the GCer would just say that her brain is sexed as female, that she has a “female brain” but the irony is that GCers typically are skeptical of the very concept of brain sex, because brain sex is a foundational concept in trans theory. The most common and mainstream explanation of trans identities is the mismatched brain sex explanation whereby a trans woman might say she needs to transition because she was born with a female brain in a male body. This mismatch of brain and body causes gender dysphoria and since we are infinitely more capable of changing the body rather than the brain the preferred treatment of both the patients and the doctors is to allow a gender/sex transition that helps reallign brain and body by changing the body.

GCers want to morally mandate trans people out of existence and prevent as many transitions as possible so they are opposed to the idea that there is even such a thing as a “female brain” or a “male brain” because that seemingly provides sufficient medical explanation for why transition is necessary. GCers typically believe that male and female brains are only different insofar as they are influenced by society. Otherwise they start off as identical but end up producing different behaviors because they are socialized to do so.

Personally, I feel like any legitimate answer to the nature vs nurture question of sex/gender will probably include at least some nature. In practically all other animal systems in nature there are evolved adaptations in males and females that make their brains distinct in at least some small way – it would seem incredible to me that humans are the drastic exceptions to the entire scheme we see in Nature. While yes it is plausible that nurture is very, very important for the development of brains it is equally likely that our evolutionary history also plays an important role in the sex differentiation of the body, including the brain.

The latest science suggests however that there is more overlap between male and female brains than difference and that your average female brain is composed of not just “female” parts but also many “male” parts. Each of our brains is a mosaic of male and female parts. But in trans people the mosaic is arranged in such a way as to radically mismatch with the body, suggesting that some people’s internal cognitive representation of the sex can be aligned so significantly with one gender/sex or another that it generates gender dysphoria.

Going back to Janice, my feeling is that Janice’s sense of womanhood would be as strong as ever as a brain-in-a-vat. In fact, I would wager that her sense of womanhood would remain almost entirely unchanged. Even if she has an abstract sense of herself as being a brain-in-a-vat the internal representations in combination with the artificial stimulation inside her brain fully determine her subjective experience, including her felt sense of identification as an adult female or woman. But without actually owning a vagina or a womb, can Janice’s claim to womanhood be based on anything other than what trans theorists call gender identity?

This is the great irony of Janice’s predicament: in order to maintain her self of womanhood, Janice’s brain must be creating an internal representation of which sex/gender she belongs to and an alignment of that  representation with the artificial inputs giving her a sense of body. But that internal representation is precisely what trans theorists mean when they talk about “brain sex” and “gender identity” – it’s the brain’s way of telling itself what gender/sex it should belong to, a sense we all have in some way or another, even if that sense is telling us we don’t belong to any gender (a-gender).


Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

7 responses to “Gender Identity as a Brain-in-a-vat

  1. Patterns of brain organisation and cognitive performances (mental rotation, judgement of line orientation [JLO], verbal fluency, perceptual speed, object location memory, cue use, spatial memory, etc.) are different for sexes.
    There are a lot of scientific papers about those exact brain differences in sexes on PubMed, Google Scholar, ScienceDirect. Why do “gender-critical feminists” never check them out?!

    Besides, I think the case of David Reimer and similar cases prove brain gender is real and can cause dysphoria if it doesn’t match the body.

    Many scientist think that the brain’s exposure to different levels of androgens & estrogens during prenatal development makes it form in different patterns which affect both the sexual orientation and the gender identity of that person later in life. This must be the reason why genetic males with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome always identify as women (and almost always straight probably) because their brain can’t form in any male pattern during prenatal development since their cells are unable to respond to testosterone and the other androgens. So, such male foetuses end up having a vulva, a blind-pouch vagina, underveloped testes in the abdomen and a female brain.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with your claim about nature and nurture. It seems wild to me that people can claim on either side of this argument that gender is wholly nature or nurture. When is any other aspect of humanity not at least a small mixture of both?


  3. If there is an all-powerful being who puts souls into the bodies of people, is it possible He can put a girl’s soul into a boy’s body? In my book, “A Girl Without a Name,” Mark has been caught by his mother for a second time(!) wearing his sister’s dress and after getting a good licking from his angry fundamentalist mother, he runs into the woods on his rural Kentucky farm. He has prayed with all his might that his “sin” be taken away. An angel of unearthly beauty appears to him (for a second time). She speaks to him that he must brace himself for what is to come, the dark times. In effect, puberty. He is only seven.I pick this up after the conversation in which she says a child of seven can’t survive out in the world alone.

    (I copied this out of the publisher’s print mechanicals (master) and hope the line breaks work.)
    “Right now Mark, you must protect yourself and survive. Everyone in this life on Earth is put through trials. This one is yours. You cannot ask to be the one person on this Earth to be excused from trials. When you stand before Him on Judgment Day, how will you present yourself to the Lord?”
    I was not sure what the angel meant. “Present?”
    “Today you were thinking about how to look pleasing to God.”
    I nodded.
    “And tomorrow? Will you want to look pleasing then, too?”
    “And the day after that, and then after that, and that, and that?”
    I did not answer.
    “And one day, Judgment Day, you will have to go naked before Him. How do you think He will expect you to be when you are brought before Him? How will He think you have done in your trials, if you do not come before Him as you truly are, deep inside? Do you think you can deceive God?”
    “No, and so if you go before Him as anyone but who you really are, God will ask you why. Why, after giving you life and every opportunity to be complete, that you squandered His gift?”
    I got a lump in my throat. “You mean I have to stay this way? A boy?”
    “No. You have to wait. You have to survive, for God plans a miracle for you that will make you whole.”
    “A miracle?”
    “Yes,” she said.
    “What will the miracle be?”
    “Miracles occur when things seem the darkest, so you must wait.”
    “Will things grow darker?”
    “Yes. So pray to God to be your light.”
    “I’ll pray every day. I’ll pray hard so the Lord takes this thing out of my heart so I’ll want to be a boy. Is there some way God can take this out of my heart?”
    She looked at me, hard. “A heart cannot be taken out of itself.” Always when I saw her, she seemed so sure and peaceful, but now it was as if she had just pronounced a death sentence on me.
    “But God can do anything, can’t He?”
    “Yes,” she said softly as the peacefulness returned to her face. “God can perform things that to mere mortals seem like miracles. He can cure the afflicted. He can raise the dead. He can drive devils out.”
    “Can He drive the devil out of me?”
    “You think you have the devil in you?”
    “Mama thinks that.”
    “Like I asked: what if when God made you, He put in a girl’s heart?”
    “Why would He do such a fool thing?”
    “That’s blasphemy, Mark.”
    I was stopped short. “I’m sorry,” I said.
    “God has infinite wisdom and we don’t know why He chooses to do the things He does, but we should not question Him. If He put something in your heart, don’t blame the devil for it. You must learn to understand what it is, instead of turning the hate of others inward as if it were your own.”
    “And does He know my name?”
    “He does.” She breathed in deep.

    If a person believes in a literal God, what if He put a girl’s heart, like Mark’s? All the mechanistic theories of who we are, the mortal molecules, fly out the window. Our spirits are female or male depending on what got put inside the merely clay of Earth.

    And the book has a happy ending with tears of joy. Mark gets his deepest wish.


  4. Trans theory posits an immutable ‘gender identity’ for all people but it appears that only those who experience gender dysphoria actually have an awareness of their gender identity, as such.

    For a brain in a vat, gender identity would be largely meaningless, except for what they call in ‘The Matrix’ one’s “residual self-concept”, which would be based upon one’s prior embodied experience, surely, in the case of Janice. Hence her self-concept would be that of herself as a female-bodied human, ie: a woman.

    Is that what trans-people mean when they talk about ‘gender identity’? That their self-concept is of themselves as a human with different sex characteristics?

    Because apart from that possibility, the only explanations I have ever heard for why people identify as the other sex (or both or neither or whatever variation may be) revolve entirely around socially sanctioned behaviours and stereotypical preferences.


    • No, it is not what people mean when they talk of “gender identity.” They mean scientific evidence. Below is a link to a summary of peer-reviewed medical and clinical research that is emerging and if it is too light weight, I link you to papers that are meant for medical doctors.

      The article might help widen your horizons beyond seeing the superficiality of “socially sanctioned behaviours and stereotypical preferences,” all of which are culturally taught to females (or males).

      Gender behavior is a social construct and varies between cultures. Gender identity is innate and invariable between cultures–baked in likely in the first trimester and immutable to change.


  5. Pingback: Are trans people imitations? – Cursed E

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