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Ramachandran’s Lab Looks into Whether You Can Be a Man in the Morning and a Woman at Night

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Neuroscience of transgenderism

Transgender group marches in Italian National Gay Pride Parade in Rome in 2007

A graduate student of famed neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran has found a group of men and women who report that their sexual identity can switch involuntarily to that of the opposite sex and back again. The transgender metamorphosis, these people assert, can occur several times a day and at inopportune moments. It is also accompanied by the sensation of phantom breasts or genitalia of the non-biological sex.

The research grows out of Ramachandran’s long-standing fascination with the study of body image and how it contributes to a basic sense of the self, work that has included investigations into the phantom limbs of amputees.

The preliminary study by Laura Case, Ramachandran’s student, raises the prospect of a new category of transgenderism. “Alternating gender incongruity (AGI),” the neuropsychiatric term the researchers have tentatively proposed, describes the involuntary change of gender identity, along with perceived phantom sex characteristics, a tendency toward ambidexterity and bipolar disorder, all signs that suggest a biological basis for AGI. (A related term, bigender, defined as blending or alternating gender states, precedes AGI.)

A paper published in the April issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses—“Alternating gender incongruity: A new neuropsychiatric syndrome providing insight into the dynamic plasticity of brain-sex”—found 32 respondents (11 anatomically female) on an online bigender forum that hosts about 600. Average age was 29. About a third of the respondents said that gender switching was predictable. A majority said they switched weekly and 14 said the transformation occurred once or more a day.

Some quotes from the paper:

—“I still have the same values and beliefs, but a change in gender is really a change in the filter through which I interact with the world and through which it interacts with me.”

—“If I’m in male mode and I see someone crying, I’ll think more along the lines of ‘Man up… while if I’m in girl mode I’ll think more long the lines of ‘Oh sweety!’”

—“I sometimes wake up thinking I have a penis,” says one female respondent, “or that I have no breasts…I usually end up in tears and I can’t get out of bed because once I get up I’ll know for sure it’s not really true and it’s just my mind playing tricks on me, so I just lie there and cry. It’s strange though because I normally don’t even want to have a penis.”

Medical Hypotheses is a controversial journal—it once published an article on the nature of navel lint—and only adopted a peer review system in 2010. Yet, Ramachandran, Nobelist Arvid Carlsson and other science luminaries have served on its editorial board because of its stated goal of foraging for “radical new ideas and speculations.” Ramachandran published previously in the journal on phantom genitalia after sex-change surgery.

The “more research needed” refrain certainly applies to the AGI work, a concession the investigators themselves make. “These results  are  suggestive but not conclusive,” Ramachandran says.  “We need to rule out the possibility that this is just a variant of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality disorder) or the subjects are simply “role–playing.” Without the “smoking gun”- physical evidence in the form of fluctuating hormone levels or brain imaging data – we don’t know what we are dealing with. Its something we are currently working on.”

At the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting in early April, Case presented preliminary research that one nominal AGI subject who was anatomically male performed differently on cognitive tests depending on his gender state: when male, he did better at a targeting task (throwing darts) and he had a superior score on a verbal fluency test after a switch to the female state. It was inconclusive whether testosterone levels fluctuated with the change in sexual identity.

Case is now preparing to move ahead with a larger study of forum members in which she will conduct neuropsychological testing by telephone and examine hormone levels with saliva samples sent through the mail. The researchers are not ready yet to do brain imaging studies on the group, which is scattered throughout the country. Ultimately, that line of research would examine patterns of activity within each brain hemisphere that differ between sexes.

If the researchers’ hypothesis holds, it would furnish an increasingly nuanced definition of sexuality. The Neuroskeptic blog, which wrote about the study, wondered what would have happened to the little-known bigenders before the advent of the term. The anonymous blogger wrote: “Would they have been identified as transgender? Maybe… but maybe not. Would they have had any label at all?”

The scientists expect that AGI could eventually be classified as a neuropsychiatric condition, which would point immediately to the deeper question of  “the extent to which each of us is a multiplicity of genders, or even persons, co-existing in harmony.” If this research succeeds, AGI could ultimately help provide a biological rationale for the protean nature of the self.

Source: Wikipedia Commons





Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ssalty 2:03 pm 04/19/2012

    Since there is no physical change I’d suggest these people are simply bisexual.

    Link to this
  2. 2. teeasha 6:40 pm 04/19/2012

    @ssalty – please learn what bisexuality means before you post anymore idiotic comments on the internet.

    the rest of the internet

    Link to this
  3. 3. alabee 6:47 pm 04/19/2012

    wow, ssalty, that is such a profound misunderstanding of gender and sexuality that I’d have to laugh if it weren’t so frustrating/sad.

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  4. 4. jgrosay 8:05 am 04/20/2012

    Julio Cesar was reported behaving the same: husband of all wives, wife of all husbands, and some raised the question about for whom he epilated his back.

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  5. 5. kendall5 2:18 pm 04/20/2012

    One second people are expressing thoughts and behaviors which extremists would classify as “traditional masculinity” and the next second people are expressing what extremists would classify as “traditional femininity”. (For example, nurturing is considered a trait limited to females, so if a guy ever expresses the qualities of empathy or concern for others, then ta da, according to the traditionalists he’s “feminine”!) Truth is, everybody experiences both “masculine” and “feminine” traits.

    Radical feminists have been pointing that^ out for a while now, and most people seem to see the logic in it. So this “new designation” is in response to radfem criticism. Instead of merely accepting that every physical body can and does experience “masculinity” and “femininity”, now they need a reason which explains why men who have no intention of having their penis removed should still have access to woman-only spaces (prisons, women’s showers, rape crisis centers, etc).

    Every human actually qualifies for their new designation, so it’s not a designation at all. But if somebody wants to keep their penis one moment and then the next moment wants to get their penis removed, then they need to stay in bipolar-only space. Because seriously, they sound like they have some major cognitive dysfunction.

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  6. 6. Sigmund 9:49 pm 04/24/2012

    Merriam Webster:
    Definition of BISEXUAL
    a: possessing characters of both sexes : hermaphroditic b: of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward both sexes
    2: of, relating to, or involving both sexes
    — bisexualnoun
    — bi·sex·u·al·i·ty noun
    — bi·sex·u·al·ly adverb

    It appears that these people do fulfill definitions 1b and 2 of bisexual, as given by Merriam Webster. If their organs changed, then they might be said to fulfill definition 1a, except that presumably both types of organs would not be present at the same time. But I still think it would fit the definition.

    What I cannot understand is the vitriolic response to ssalty’s innocuous statement.

    Also, as Kendall5 points out, we are all bisexual to some extent. But I presume that the individuals described in the article have more extreme shifts between a masculine and a feminine persona than most of us do.

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  7. 7. WizeHowl 7:44 am 04/28/2012


    Nowhere in this article or in the paper does it state that any of the participants are sexually attracted to there own sex, thereby negating your own supplied definition -
    a: possessing characters of both sexes : hermaphroditic b: of, relating to, or characterized by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward both sexes.

    Your definition states clearly that they are sexually attracted to BOTH sexes, therefore the participants can be assumed to be Heterosexual.

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  8. 8. Neuroreporter 7:43 pm 05/4/2012

    Yet another one of Ramachandran’s headline grabbing hypotheses. Another fantastic theory unsupported by any real science. It’s not an accident that this pseudo-scientific research comes to us through Medical Hypotheses. In 2010 Ramachandran published an article in Medical Hypotheses in which he suggested that olfactory bulb dysgenesis (atrophy) might be responsible for autism! The public is fascinated by this kind of science fiction but most scientists don’t take such nonsense seriously. It is a sad reflection on Scientific American that you have simply passed along this story without providing any analysis of its plausibility.

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