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Differences between male and female brains are more than just persistent myths, in Gina Rippon’s view they are more like self-fulfilling prophecies
If the neuroscientist Gina Rippon had her way, her new book debunking the idea that brains are naturally either male or female would have been called “50 Shades of Grey Matter.” Alas, her publishers were aiming for a more serious tone on the popular science shelves. So when it was released in Britain earlier this year, the title was “The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain.”
Now the book is about to launch in Canada and the U.S. with a different title. It is the same book. It argues that “a gendered world produces a gendered brain,” as Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, described in an interview.
By surveying the history of scientific efforts to find gender-based differences between men’s and women’s brains, it shows how these differences are more than just persistent myths, built into the very project of cognitive science. Rippon’s view is that they are more like self-fulfilling prophecies.
Early anatomical efforts to measure brain volume and skull shape were comically racist and sexist, based on simplistic theories that intelligence is linked to brain size, which in turn led to such amusing dead-ends as the Chihuahua paradox, named for the tiny dog with the big head that should be a genius, but isn’t.
More recent brain-scanning technology has identified gender differences in anatomy and function, only to fall apart with faulty interpretation about how they came to be. In many cases, as Rippon describes, what much of this research really shows is the “brain-changing effects of social processes.”
Brains are made, not born fully formed. The classic formulation, which Rippon endorses, is that the mind is what the brain does. And what it does is use stereotypes and shortcuts to function more efficiently. Rippon compares brains to the predictive text function on smartphones, offering up forward-thinking guidance based on past experience. Brains change over time depending what they do, and what they are made to do. This is where supposedly “female” and “male” personalities, cognitive advantages and ways of thinking really come from, Rippon argues, not some essential natural endowment of maleness or femaleness.
Rippon’s analysis reveals the history of gender-focused brain science as a circular process of trying to validate the status quo with a natural explanation. Scientists were not really asking why brains were different. They were looking for natural reasons why women were weaker, less analytical, more emotional, excluded from political power, confined to domestic life, subjugated to their husbands and fathers, considered inferior under law.
Her account is shot through with this focus on women and how sexism has led cognitive science astray.
She writes that one of her “favourite” quotes is by Gustave Le Bon, a 19th century Parisian psychologist, who engaged with the political, cultural and scientific concerns that were coming to be known as the “woman question.” He acknowledged the existence of “distinguished women” superior to the average man, but said they are “as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”
That focus on women carries through more modern examples, such as over-hyped findings of gender differences in the brain’s ratio of grey matter and white matter.
But the North American title will undo that particular focus on women, on the cover at least. It will be called “Gender and Our Brains: How Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Brain
“I bowed to their marketing experience,” Rippon said.
It was thought the term “gendered” might not go over as well in North America, that it was a newish term that might invite questions of transgender, which is not the focus of the book.
“Shatters,” in the original title, might also convey a greater sense of destruction than “Explodes” does, so the new subtitle is somehow more measured, more inclusive of men, less obviously focused on women and their brains.
This is more than just a quirk in a transatlantic marketing strategy. It gets to the heart of Rippon’s thesis. It speaks to the deep-rooted historical misunderstandings about what it means to think like a man, or a woman, or a boy or a girl, and how those misunderstandings can vary even between similar cultures in the English-speaking West.
It shows how science, though it grasps at pure and timeless truths, is mediated by the fleeting, grubby details of culture. When a scientist explains it to the public, she must contend with what the British critic A.A. Gill once called the “21st-century tyranny of the first thing that comes into your head.”
So not only does “Female” lose pride of place in the new subtitle, it actually gets placed second after “Male,” as per the longstanding default tradition of “men and women” and “boys and girls.”
The book’s reception has already been mildly controversial, despite some high-profile endorsements, including a positive review in Nature. A review in The Times of London by the University of Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron Cohen — whom Rippon describes favourably but criticizes for the untenable view that “not all men have the male brain and not all women have the female brain” — calls her argument “cultural determinist.” He says her “extremist” position is that, when it comes to the brain, “it’s all culture and no biology.”
It was Donald Hebb, the late Canadian icon of developmental psychology and the science of learning, who cleverly asked what contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width.
His point was that “nature or nurture” is never the right question. Everything is always both. Humans are products of both. We know this. But the history of science has been like a Looney Tunes episode of scientists making the same mistakes over and over again with comical predictability, like the Road Runner or Elmer Fudd.
At least it can often seem that way in Rippon’s breezy historical retelling.
She recounts the gut-wrenching stories of scientists drinking vile smoothies of dog and guinea pig testicles (later a veritable trend among American men in the 1920s) in an effort to prove the behavioural effects of hormones. “Heroic” though this research method was, she observes that it was soon revealed as “somewhat limited in its usefulness.”
She informs the reader that testosterone was discovered by one Fred Koch, then joins in the naughty giggles by adding “(no, really.)”
She tells of the forgotten theory that women’s delicate brains could be overwhelmed by education, causing reproductive failure and what William Withers Moore, president of the British Medical Association in 1886, called “anorexia scholastica.”
She ridicules the bizarrely subjective “Tomboy Index,” and is vicious in her account of the recent rise of popular “psychobabble” about how female brains are empathizers, better suited to nurturing others, while male brains are systemizers, better suited to rigorous pursuits like science.
“Add to the mix a general understanding that biologically determined characteristics are fixed and unchangeable and we arrive at a misinformed but understandable stereotype of the link between sex and science,” she writes.
Even Charles Darwin gets his knocks in this story, for encouraging the view that biology is destiny, so gender differences have evolutionary purposes that should not be interfered with.
Rippon’s primary research interest, like Baron Cohen’s, is the nature of autism. She sees it as yet another case study in gender’s ability to muddy the waters of science.
Autism was long assumed to be a male problem, and many key diagnostic tools are geared toward boys. Now it is becoming clear that autism also affects many girls who have gone undiagnosed.
Girls have the same problem, Rippon says, but are better at disguising it. They are especially good at learning “camouflaging behaviour,” or training themselves to act as expected without it coming automatically.
The trouble is that this coping strategy works until roughly puberty, when the resulting problems are often diagnosed as something else. Rippon said there is reason to think they might have benefited from the earlier interventions more commonly offered to boys.
She ends her book with the story of Tay, a Twitter chatbot that famously became racist and sexist based on the input it received from other users. She sees it as an allegory.
“‘I’m better than this,’ tweeted poor Tay before they closed her down. And the same is true of our brains.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019