Sex and the brain
Last week I attended an eye-opening talk by Cordelia Fine, a psychologist, neuroscientist and best-selling author based at the University of Melbourne. She highlighted something to me that I’ve always held a deep discomfort over, but that I’ve never really been able to articulate myself on: the view that men and women’s brains are fundamentally hardwired, and that this translates into differences between the sexes in behaviour and natural aptitude.
Scientists have reported that men’s brains are programmed for understanding systems (for example, technical, scientific, mathematical, or business systems) and women’s for nurture and empathy. We are told that men instinctively prefer the colour blue, reject pink, and can’t help but forget to put the washing out; and that women are more social, obsessed with their appearance, are worse at maths but better at languages… you get the picture. And with so many popular science books emphasising innate sex differences, it’s hard not to give in to the notion, isn’t it? Yet, thinking more about it seems to reveal an unsettling and subtle kind of biological determinism. Are these unwelcomed truths or unsupported codswallop?
Cordelia Fine has taken it upon herself to debunk some brain science. She thinks that what a lot of this seems to come down to is a good serving of neurosexism dressed in the pretence of legitimate science, which “uses psychological power to create self-fulfilling prophecies and gender inequality”. She elegantly argues that this popular scientific view is dangerous, unfounded, and needs to be questioned so that we may stop perpetuating myths that reinforce cultural stereotypes.
In her book, Delusions of Gender, Fine presents readers with a rigorous critique of the mountain of neuroscience literature on brain-sex differences, carefully revealing the flaws and biases littered throughout experiments and conclusions.
Popular neuroscience thinks that brain hardwiring is cemented during foetal life in the womb, through the foetus’s exposure to different levels of testosterone.
As the idea goes:
HIGH FOETAL TESTOSTERONE -> BOY BRAIN -> BOY BEHAVIOUR
LOW FOETAL TESTOSTERONE -> GIRL BRAIN -> GIRL BEHAVIOUR
Experiments often try to find correlations between the level of foetal testosterone at birth and behaviour in children. For example, those that have low levels of testosterone prenatally may show more empathetic behaviour as a child, or those that have high levels may be better at maths. The big problem here is that maternal blood samples or amniotic fluid is used as a measure of foetal testosterone, however, neither has ever been shown to directly correlate with foetal testosterone levels. Moreover, how can we make the simple conclusion that testosterone is the only thing diverging sexual paths? It simply isn’t, as many developmental biologists will tell you.
Another kind of test is frequently conducted, where brain scans are used to highlight regions of the brain that differ between men and women while they are presented with the same cognitive task. The problem with these experiments is that they only emphasise very few visible differences without focussing on the majority of the brain that stays the same. What’s more – where in the brain do the intrinsic abilities to perform well on a certain task lie? Men and women may differ in their brain patterns in one small area of the brain when they are tested on maths, but is this region actually responsible for the difference? Here lies a great hole in the picture, where scientists conveniently bypass important questions on brain biology, merely showing an arbitrary correlation between two things.
What’s more likely is that differences in performance occur because, according to Fine, “our minds are attuned to social stereotypes”. Psychologists have found that when gender dissolves into the social background, men and women’s behaviour becomes remarkably similar: when men and women were told before a test that they possessed fundamental differences in their aptitudes for a particular task due to their gender, they performed according to these differences; however, men and women who weren’t told this performed to the same level as one another. “This demonstrates how social bias kicks in when gender becomes salient,” says Fine.
Of course, there are probably biological differences between the brain’s of men and women, but the wiring is not fixed. Rather, it is malleable and moulded by encounters with the environment, and there is no linear continuum that sexual development follows. Furthermore, different cultures have varying standards of what is ‘feminine’ and what is ‘masculine’, and this adds to the difficulty in using controlled experiments to capture social realities.
From the age of about two years, children begin to fall to either side of the gender divide, and their sexual identity is continually reinforced and encouraged by our society and marketing companies (one little girl offers some amazingly mature insight into the debate on gender marketing). While having a sexual identity is important (even if we’re looking at it from a purely evolutionary perspective in terms of reproductive success), to allow the popular mentality of innate sex differences to predominate, we are harmfully shaping children’s identities, perceptions and standards of what they are capable of.
And really, what is gender, anyway? Isn’t that just a social construct?