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.

Lead photo
Prof Georgina Rippon

Chair of Cognitive Neuroimaging, Aston University

Posted on

Wed 04-Dec-13 12:40:50

(28 comments)

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

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.

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.  
 
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

NumptyNameChange Wed 04-Dec-13 15:14:31

thank you.

stunning that they overlook the fact that the stereotypical gendering of upbringing, conditioning and habits could be the creators rather than the results of neural structures.

should think it far more likely that a lifetimes experiences impact the brain more than different levels of hormones fgs.

NumptyNameChange Wed 04-Dec-13 15:16:12

do not they not even have to control their experiments with using different subjects of different cultures, ages, IQ's etc? just look at gender in a vacuum without controlling for anything else? that can't be science can it?

madwomanintheatt1c Wed 04-Dec-13 15:39:05

'The scientists' biggest sin in this study is this massive leap between structure and function' - this.

Notwithstanding the potential link between gender conditioning and the structure of adult brains the fact remains that there are still huge gaps in the knowledge surrounding structure and function, neurologically speaking.

As a mother still held in the throes of absolute science, (as all good citizens are supposed to be - do what the government and your doctor says ;-) ) I was pretty certain that the neurologist would be able to look at my newborn dd's brain scans (MRI and EEG) and tell me what the pattern of brain damage and electrical activity displayed would likely mean in terms of her future (both in motor and cognitive terms).

Let's just say it was an eye opening experience in terms of the limitations of scientific knowledge and medicine. grin. And this mother for one, is forever grateful for the 'exquisite malleability' of the human brain, which has allowed my beautiful dd2 to forge ahead with her development and gain huge functional leaps, enabling her to display beyond doubt her cognitive abilities. I don't want anyone telling her that as a woman her brain means this or that. I want her to be the one doing the next round of neurological studies and busting the myths. grin

Thanks, Georgina!

rippong Wed 04-Dec-13 17:17:14

Glad to hear of another beauttiful female brain forging ahead!!

rippong Wed 04-Dec-13 17:20:02

They should certainly know better. But 2 of the scientists, the Gurs, have made something of a 'cottage industry' of supporting gender stereotypes.

TheSporkforeatingkyriarchy Wed 04-Dec-13 17:37:25

I wish the media wouldn't run away with science stories like this, it rarely ends well.

It didn't say that women and men are 'wired differently', it says that in their small sample size there were noticeable sex differences in the communication between hemispheres. They weren't actually that big. And as already said, structure doesn't equal function. There are likely other divisions that could be made, particularly with such a small sample.

It has already been shown in multiple previous studies that the 'male' and 'female' brain concept doesn't work, it's more accurate to say there are high and low areas of the brain and different things - genetics and environment - can affect this and some can even be affected to the point of switching in ones life. If we had to use sex or gender to describe brain, everyone's brain would chimera intersex - bit of male, bits of female - but the high/low is far clearer I think.

I think there was a TED talk about the intersex brain that talked about this a while back that might interest.

HerrenaHarridan Wed 04-Dec-13 19:54:21

The most stupid thing about this study IMO is that the subjects were not be own babies and therefor are not exempt from the nature/ nurture argument.

At birth the brain isn't even totally formed let alone wired. Over the years of nurture it becomes wired in the ways that are successful for it.

This is MASSIVELY influenced by how boys are raised v how girls are raised.

HerrenaHarridan Wed 04-Dec-13 19:54:46

Not be own = newborn

bubblesmonkey Wed 04-Dec-13 20:06:13

Quite right. The misrepresentation of science in the news drives me bonkers.

NumptyNameChange Wed 04-Dec-13 20:20:12

it isn't just in the news though, as the blogger points out, it's in the scientists themselves. science isn't immune to androcentric thinking. you only have to read the accounts of valiant sperms battling through dangerous environments to conquer the passive egg to see how to the core it goes. i think i'm right in thinking this view of the role of the egg has been disproven and the egg is very much active and sperms fairly useless when it comes to penetrating the egg and more likely to be trying to get away than burrow in.

yet scientists saw and wrote what is essentially the story of sleeping beauty onto the raw observations and data.

caramelwaffle Wed 04-Dec-13 20:51:13

Thank you, Professor Rippon.

Parietal Wed 04-Dec-13 22:15:30

Here is a similar critique of the research from Cordelia Fine.
http://theconversation.com/new-insights-into-gendered-brain-wiring-or-a-perfect-case-study-in-neurosexism-21083

And all the neuroscientists I know on twitter have been all over this study today, finding limitations. Don't believe the headlines.

Yes this frustrated me hugely too, as the brains they assessed were from children 5 years up I think, whose brains would have already altered to fit the gender stereotypes in our society.

Genuine question - how would you carry out a fair study? At birth? In utero? Do brains of girl and boy babies alter in response to external and maternal stimuli?

NumptyNameChange Thu 05-Dec-13 08:45:48

well in theory bill you could compare brains brought up in societies like our own and those raised in cultures without gender class system sadly the latter doesn't exist. when i studied feminist anthropology they could drag up a couple of cultures where there was less inequality due to more equal economic contributions (where child rearing did not preclude females from bringing in over half of food needs) but in reality they still had sex roles and conditioned behaviours and concerns.

even then though it might show you that environment created different structures but still wouldn't answer how structure related to function if i'm understanding this right.

BobbiBAguiar Thu 05-Dec-13 10:35:08

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mumof5ive Sat 07-Dec-13 02:46:11

males have bigger brains

So this is why all the greatest inventors and scientists are male?

NumptyNameChange Sat 07-Dec-13 07:59:08

size isn't everything in this case. note we're usually lying when we tell you that but in the case of brains it's true.

IsabellJRodriguez Sat 07-Dec-13 12:21:47

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Cassandra89075 Sat 07-Dec-13 19:32:02

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KarenNAbbott Sun 08-Dec-13 09:01:12

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Late to this - but while it's great to read the article, the title (I'm guessing provided by MN?) is terrible.

Surely the implication is that brains aren't 'wired' at all - because that metaphor conflates architecture with function, that's the point of using it.

numpty - FIWI, I found it really telling that the study listed the racial origins of participants (though not, say, economic or cultural background). That suggests to me they see the world in terms of fixed categories.

sashh Tue 10-Dec-13 15:25:28

I think if you take a group of prepubescent youngsters and split them in to two groups.

One group are taught mainly maths and science, and the other group arts and humanities you will find a difference in brain development over a number of years.

I think the differences have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with education

grimbletart Tue 10-Dec-13 16:18:55

Education, expectations and confidence, not necessarily in that order. There are no or negligible gender differences in achievements in maths and science in the asian areas/countries that topped the PISA list. So unless someone could explain to me how the apparent biological hard-wiring in those countries is different from the UK I shall continue to think that a lot of gender differences are due more (though not exclusively) down to nurture.

lemonmuffin Wed 11-Dec-13 20:56:49

important to recognise that gender stereotypes are true, but just as important to recognise that our brains are wired differently from men, feminists need to understand that.

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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