Brainache

A recent article has emerged on brain connections research: “Men and women’wired differently'”, that claims all our cultural stereotypes are in fact founded in neurology. The moment I read it I got suspicion signals (a bit like creep signals, but for dodgy science rather than dodgy men), so I have been browsing the web on the search of a little more neurosciencey insight.

For a start, the whole men versus women debate is not one I feel comfortable with. Some people deny categorically that there is any difference between men and women except for sex and won’t hear anything to the contrary – and who can blame them, really, when others are so sure men and women are fundamentally different that the delegation of the woman to the home and historical domination of women by men is justified. In religious circles, this is the concept of complementarity: that each person has their place, determined by their sex, and they should just suck it up, bitches: god made you to do that job, how dare you say a word against HIM?

(of course, there is no need to be religious to hold this view, and it is less and less common amongst religious followers: it still persists)

So you can imagine I am relieved when I am reminded of all the studies which measure how much bigger men’s brains are than women’s (and yet found no relationship to intelligence) or that men have more white and women more grey brain matter. In fact, as Mo Costand puts it:

“Subtle observable differences exist between male and female brains, but how exactly these relate to differences in behaviour is unknown. Such gender variations in the brain are often exaggerated and misappropriated, not only by the mass media but also by scientists, to reinforce stereotypes and perpetuate myths”

What’s scary about this?

We don’t know stuff. We can see there are differences, but we can’t appropriate those differences to a given result because we have no evidence to connect the brain to the behaviour – just note differences between complex individuals on the basis of one fatcor. Yes, there were plenty of participants: 428 males and 521 females aged 8-22. But all of the adults recruited from the University of Pennsylvania, and all of them from the same cultural background.

Sex was the only factor examined. How can we be sure the differences result from sex biology and not sex culture? This is the nature versus nurture debate again. And the problem is that brains are not hardwired, they are flexible and the connections develop as the sum of our experiences. Eight years is a long time for brain development, and yes, the study noticed increasing male and female diversity with age, but how influenced is an eight year old by gender stereotypes, compared with, say, a fourteen year old? The cultural influence is vast. And I don’t say it is culture. Culture and biology are in any case massively interdependent – hence the debate. But I do say the study doesn’t check that it isn’t, so it can’t make any claims.

Dr Dean Burnett points out that scientific literature sports evidence for greater differences between brains of different ages than sexes. Over time, our brains change hugely. There is huge cultural influence – of some kind.

So the scary thing is that it looks like this study was analysed with the aim of reinforcing cultural stereotypes: i.e. “prove me right” science. Of course, by the time the story gets to the media, it may have been so warped that the original scientists who conducted it no longer recognise their work. I wouldn’t know. But they have still made the faux pas of coming to conclusions that have a huge social impact, and publishing them irresponsibly, given the evidence. Perhaps too much pressure and encouragement to publish results has resulted in these kinds of publications – where editors can handpick studies that reinforce cultural beliefs and create a stir. Because boring results which confirm what we already “know” are what the public really want.

I would be interested in reading the original study to answer some of these questions and learn how they quantify the male and female differences. But I haven’t found a link to it… Hm.

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About RowenaFW

I am a Fish. But you wouldn't know it just from looking at me.
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