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29.11.11

Is the female brain innately inferior?

Did the title get your attention? It sure as hell caught mine when USC grad student Rohan Aurora sent me the link.

Recently Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research published an interview with a Stanford neuroscientist about male vs. female brains.

I'm not going to lie: when I clicked the link I was expecting the usual attention-grabbing, rabble-rousing crap I've come to expect when I see a headline like that.


I was prepared for some serious eye rolling and frustrated groaning in response to the inevitable logical errors, overreaching conclusions, and other neuro-nonsense. Especially given how much gender has been on my mind lately (what with my recent foray into fatherhood and the whole #womanspace thing).

This certainly wouldn't have been the first time a neuroscientist has railed against silly neuroscientific claims in gender research.

Instead I got a well thought out, sane, clear-headed, and scientifically sound interview. I was especially pleased because the neuroscientist in question is a friend, colleague, and collaborator of mine: Prof. Josef Parvizi (co-author on one of my most-cited first-author papers). I'm especially proud to call him a collaborator after reading this. Seriously, this is a great interview and Josef just nails it.

The whole piece is short, but concise, and a great reference to counter some of the more common neuro-gender crap. They tackle three myths; I've quoted my favorite parts below.

Gender Brain Myth #1: Brain size matters
...if absolute brain size were all that mattered, whales and elephants, both of which have much larger brains than humans, would outwit men and women.

Gender Brain Myth #2: Women and men have different brains due to estrogen and testosterone
...if estrogen and testosterone did shape the brain in different ways, it is an unsubstantiated, logical leap to conclude that such differences cause, "...men to occupy top academic positions in the sciences and engineering or top positions of political or social power, while women are hopelessly ill-equipped for such offices."

Gender Brain Myth #3: Men are naturally better at math
According to Parvizi, this logic is flawed: "Differences seen in cognitive tests do not necessarily provide direct evidence that those differences are in fact innate."

Finally, I love the following. It should be copy-and-pasted into any online argument. Or shouted repeatedly at any TV/magazine puff-piece writer.

"...if we are to entertain the idea that humans 'experience' life differently, and that different experiences mold the brain function differently, then we must also seriously consider that gender (along with class, ethnicity, age, and many other factors) would also contribute to this experience, and that they will contribute to molding of the brain...

So if women and men have systematically different life experiences and face dissimilar expectations from birth, then we would expect that their brains would become different (even if they are not innately dissimilar), through these different life experiences. Even if neuroscientists see differences in the brains of grown men and women, it does not follow that these differences are innate and unchangeable.

For instance, if girls are expected to be more adept at language, and are placed in more situations that require communication with others, it follows that the networks of the brain associated with language could become more efficient in women. Conversely, if boys receive more toy trucks and Lego's, are given greater encouragement in math and engineering classes, and eventually take more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, it follows that the sections of the brain associated with mathematics could become more efficient in men...

The tricky part is that we do not make the mistake of taking account of these differences as evidence for biological determinism."

7 comments:

  1. Dan H10:31

    If this topic interests you, I strongly suggest you read Pink Brain Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. She goes through all the points in this interview in much more detail. For example she talks about when in development the sex hormones surge and what does or does not change with those surges (along with a lot of the research on sex hormone disorders). She also directly names & critiques researchers and activists who are misrepresenting brain/sex research. She also goes into the subtle sex difference that seem to be robustly replicated. The cover alone will make a cognitive psychologist smile.

    Dr. Eliot lead a policy panel on brain/sex research at the last SFN meeting that was very good.

    As for writing quality, I'd call the book an exceptionally well written 400 page review paper rather than something designed for a completely lay reader. Still, a lay reader who is willing to work at it will learn a lot.

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  2. Wow, thanks Dan! I'll check it out.

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  3. I would also suggest you check out "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine - she gave a thorough and critical (and sometimes quite witty) critique of many of these neurological (or otherwise) studies which supposedly demonstrate sex differences in cognition, and the role played by factors such as stereotype threats in bringing about self-fulfilling gender differences.

    She gave a talk about a year ago which provides a good summary of some of the main content of her book:
    http://fora.tv/2010/10/02/Cordelia_Fine_Delusions_of_Gender

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  4. Thanks Tommy! I've got the video bookmarked.

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  5. Matt Craddock03:54

    I read "The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?" by Deborah Cameron a few years ago and found that a really interesting read on the topic of sex differences.

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  6. Shaikha05:33

    Thank you! I love it when I see sane opinions (read: my opinions) put together by someone else. ;-P

    I love it!

    Exactly! It is the experience that molds our brains into male and female more than anything else. And what about the shit of makeup, shopping, moisturizing obsessively, going to spas once every two weeks and doing our nails every Tuesday? Given the opportunity to taste such experiences establishes a link between an individual - male or female - with these practices, and through that the brain is molded to accustom itself to that.

    ..

    The gist: see how ridiculous we, mankind and Neuroscientists especially (no offense to me and you) approach the brain?
    We are all so stupid, collectively. If not, wouldn't you think that studies that ASSUME an innate difference in men and women because of different brain structures in adulthood would be frowned upon?
    If I ruled the world, these assumptions would be banned and people who propose stupid theories would be decapitated ;p

    Sorry, but seeing that this comments section - at this very moment - is not recognizing "neuroscientist" as a proper English word (it thinks I misspelled it), tells me that Neuroscience is yet to meet the world on a large scale; is yet to be respected and taken more seriously.

    I think Neuroscience is a mind-blowing field, amazing, awesome, and more cool than these computers we are using. But it is a field that is yet to be discovered and presented as cool as it is.

    Excuse the long comment. Thank you and looking fwd to reading more awesomeness. :-D

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  7. Shaikha:

    Haha I'm glad you liked the post so much! I wish I could take more credit for it, but the meat of the ideas were not mine, but my colleagues'. I just thought they were too good not to share.

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