Tuesday, July 8, 2014

There's Something About Testosterone

Like many, I'm a big fan of NPR's "This American Life," often listening to it's 24-hr./day archival radio station, where I recently heard a replay of their "testosterone" episode from 2002. The whole show is pretty interesting, but I especially had to re-chuckle at a short part I've reported on before. I'll just re-run that post from about a year ago below:


A dash of the offbeat today….

Some weeks back, NPR's "This American Life" ran its 500th show, playing bits from dozens of favorite episodes over the years. Early on, was a 2002 episode piece with an individual who was born female, but always felt more male, and took testosterone shots later in life to finally make the transition in gender. The end of this little segment still rattles around in my mind… After relating a lot of already interesting stories to host Ira Glass about how the change in gender affected him, the interviewee is asked by Ira if there are any other alterations due to testosterone he thinks worth mentioning. The individual responds that after taking testosterone he "became interested in science; I was never interested in science before." To this Ira can't help but chuckle and respond, "NO WAY!" adding that such a response is "setting us back 100 years." The individual goes on to insist that testosterone resulted in "understanding physics in a way I never did before."
You can hear the whole episode here (but the specific exchange occurs around the 22:30 point):


Anyway, what an amazing thought that a few shots of testosterone could, waaah-laaah!, boost science aptitude! I assume math aptitude would be susceptible as well, so I googled "testosterone +math" which led to a 2007 piece [from a blog which no longer exists!] showing some connection.

Toward the end it concludes:

"The important thing to get out of this is that there is an intra-sex correlation between sex hormones and math scores, and this is in the direction one would expect. More prenatal exposure to the male sex hormone testosterone correlates with higher math scores."

before adding this cautionary, anecdotal note:

"However, I also believe that this finding, by itself, does not fully explain the connection between math ability and sex hormones. The  stereotype is that the kids who are good at math are the nerdy non-athletic kids, the opposite of the high-testosterone football playing kids. So although there is a scientifically validated correlation between prenatal testosterone and math, there is an anecdotal opposite correlation for teenage boys. Less testosterone in the teenage years seems to predict higher math performance."

This is just one study of course and there are other studies of the relationship between hormones and science/math ability... and plenty of complicating, intervening variables, as well. Still, it is fascinating that at least one individual, albeit on a pop radio show, feels that the administration of testosterone, like a magic potion, brought on an interest in science that previously didn't exist.


p.s.... for other lovers of "This American Life," if you don't already know this, the 24/7 radio-stream of old episodes can be accessed here:

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