MumsnetGuestBlogs (MNHQ) Wed 04-Dec-13 12:40:50

Yes, women's brains are wired differently from men's - but that doesn't mean that gender stereotypes are 'true'

Neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania say that new research shows that men's brains are geared towards perception and co-ordinated actions, while women's are better equipped for social interactions and multitasking.

In this guest post, neuroscientist Prof. Georgina Rippon of Aston University says that scientists are as likely as anyone to be influenced by gender stereotypes - and that both they and the media should be wary of over-interpreting their findings.

Read her post - and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Prof Georgina Rippon

Chair of Cognitive Neuroimaging, Aston University

Posted on: Wed 04-Dec-13 12:40:50

(28 comments )

Lead photo

The scans show a higher number of connections between the left and right sides of the brain in women than in men - but what does that mean?

Here we go again! A brain imaging study reports differences between men and women's brains and the media frenzy begins. “We were right all along, male and female brains are different – let's confirm it by making reference to the fact that males have bigger brains relative to their body weight”.  So do Chihuahuas, it’s worth noting.
 
Sometimes you can blame the media for mangling the findings of a complicated neuroimaging study like this one, where the basic premises are not sufficiently explained and the innumerable steps from scanner to ‘pretty brain picture’ are obscured.  But sometimes the scientists themselves can carelessly, if not deliberately, contribute to the furore. I think this is the case here.
 
So what is it that this paper is really reporting?  Diffusion Tensor Imaging is a technique which allows you to map the nerve pathways connecting different parts of the brain. It is a measure of structures, much like the roads of a city.  It does not measure any kind of activation - or traffic flow on these roads - which might occur when the owner of the brain is carrying out a particular task. Therefore, any statement that these findings illustrate functional activities – for example, that male brains are better able to link perception to action - is completely speculative.  

There is an unspoken 'biology is destiny' message here which must be challenged at every turn. What the study does not do is acknowledge that our brains are so exquisitely malleable that it is virtually impossible to directly relate structure to function without carrying out the impossible task of taking all of our life experiences into account. Their findings are misleading at best and, at worst, irresponsible.

 
The scientists’ biggest sin in this study is this massive leap between structure and function, and it really is a cardinal one in cognitive neuroscience circles.  Is bigger better? Are more connections better than fewer? Does this technique allow a direct measure of the relationship between structure and function? These are the questions the scientists should have asked themselves before over-interpreting their findings in terms of sex stereotypes.
 
The distinction between measuring structure and function is an essential one - the two may be related, but the relationship is not straightforward. What the study describes is a road map of connections with the unchallenged suggestion that the bigger and better these connections, the more efficient the traffic flow. Anyone who has been on the LA freeway system at rush will recognise the flaw in this logic.
 
What the study actually shows is that there are some structural differences in brain connections between two groups, one male and one female. The differences are not absolute - we are not looking at all male brains showing one pattern, all females another. But let’s ignore that – it’s much more exciting to report that neuroscientists are proving the accuracy of stereotypes.  Stereotypes that are based on the assumption that there are particular characteristics, positive or negative, that belong to one group, determined by e.g. race, gender, political party membership, and not another.  Scientists contributing to that myth should certainly be taken to task.
 
We know that the brain is much more plastic than the early neurologists ever dreamed, and is much more permeable to society’s influences than we knew. Do we know anything about the life experiences of the people they measured? What kind of schooling did they have?  Have they been brought up in an all-male family? An all-female family? Life experiences can (literally) be brain-changing; even being told that members of the opposite sex can carry out a task better than you can change your brain activation patterns, and your performance on the task.  
 
There is an unspoken ‘biology is destiny’ message here which must be challenged at every turn. What the study does not do is acknowledge that our brains are so exquisitely malleable that it is virtually impossible to directly relate structure to function without carrying out the impossible task of taking all of our life experiences into account. Their findings are misleading at best and, at worst, irresponsible.
 
This paper and what the media have made of it is a great example of how neuronews can become neurononsense.  The scientists themselves need to be more careful – sprinkling your text with ‘suggests’ just won’t do  - and the journalists reporting them need to be a bit more probing about what is really being shown  before they head for the sensationalist headlines.

By Prof Georgina Rippon

Twitter: @astonuniversity

NiceTabard Wed 11-Dec-13 21:18:11

Lemon

What do you say to people who do not adhere to gender stereotypes? Where/ what do you think they should be?

What do you say to people who are more comfortable with skills, tasks and behaviours which are commonly attributed to the opposite sex?

I would be interested to know what you think those people should do, given the fundamentally different wiring between men and women that you cite.

lemon, our brains aren't wired at all. Promise. Why do you think they are?

grimbletart Thu 12-Dec-13 18:21:28

You know what? I'm not sure that I need lemon telling me what I need to understand.

KaseyM Thu 12-Dec-13 21:59:14

What I would like to know is this: If male and female brains are wired so differently, then why are we all so complex, so overlapping in our interests and skills?

Why do I know women who are great at science and men who are lousy at computers? Why do I know mothers who yell at their kids and men who are sweet as pie to theirs? Why do I have a DS who is fully of empathy, great at science, lousy at Maths and a wonderful artist?

Could it be that these generalisations are so general that they're not even worth mentioning? And could it also be that individuals are complex in themselves with traits that span the so-called masculine - feminine spectrum. But that this stupid rewards & punishment system society has going on brings out only certain traits according to gender whilst squishing others?

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