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Wonderings about brains and being good at things.

(63 Posts)
Ozziegirly Thu 04-Oct-12 06:10:11

Following on from the very interesting thread on fewer girls doing A Level Physics than boys, it made me wonder, are there some actual proper built in differences between boys' and girls' brains which make more boys interested in maths/science etc and girls more interested in languages/english etc?

Or does it come down purely to social conditioning from an early age?

Because there seems to be a received wisdom that "girls talk earlier and better, and boys do the physical stuff earlier and better", suggesting that their brains are different, or at least learn differently. I know we can all point to individuals where this doesn't apply, in the same way that we can point to women who are scientists or computer programmers, and men who are midwives and carers, but I'm more talking about the majority, rather than the minority.

So, what do you think? Nature or nurture or a a combination of both?

And if so, I suspect my next question would be; if there are these differences, does it matter if fewer girls are doing physics - so long as the ones who are able and interested are able to do so. If the statistic was turned around and showed that "1/2 of state schools have no boys studying French", would we express the same concern?

AllThreeWays Thu 04-Oct-12 06:32:43

I think men and women are fundamentally different, and we do each other a disservice when we don't accept this. But also we are also individual and many deviate from the average.
Feminism is not challenged by this as I see it as addressing the inequities that a male dominated society caused,, which made women less and our strengths considered a weakness.
This is just my opinion and others may disagree

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 04-Oct-12 07:13:03

I think nurture.

It'd be extremely hard to demonstrate whether brain differences were the result of nature or nuture, FWIW - brains develop and adapt.

Cordelia Fine's stuff points out some interesting examples of very early bias in the way we treat boys and girls. It would be difficult, I think, to know whether or not these are responsible for girls speaking earlier, etc.

I believe that first babies speak earlier, too, FWIW.

I think we do express the same concerns about boys. There constantly seem to be shocked stories in the paper about boys not doing as well as girls in school exams, and boys doing poorly at English Lit.

OTOH, a fair few people just don't seem to care if men are bad at certain kinds of task - like cleaning a house - and these tend to be tasks that are poorly paid and poorly respected. 'Men just don't see dirt', for example, is a bit of bollocks that comes up a fair bit.

So, I think while it is not possible to prove nature doesn't have an impact, it's not possible to prove it does, either. There's too much evidence that nurture definitely does.

WidowWadman Thu 04-Oct-12 07:16:21

I'd recommend reading "Delusions of Gender" by Cordelia Fine on this, she argues the case that it's more nurture than nature very well.

Ozziegirly Thu 04-Oct-12 07:32:02

It's so interesting, I find the area fascinating. My DS (2) is a boy who has displayed stereotypical "boyish" traits since he was very small (eg, brandishing sticks, enjoying mud, being very adventurous, pushing physical limits, and showing an absolute adoration for cars/trucks/anything with a wheel, which DH and I find baffling) and I can honestly say I have no idea if I have subconsciously reinforced those behaviours.

So, I suppose the argument is that even if there is a small propensity for boys to be better at some things, and girls others, the overwhelming "nurture" and specifically peer group pressure that comes into play later on will be the deciding factor in any event.

DilysPrice Thu 04-Oct-12 07:51:58

I am perfectly prepared to believe that there are some measurable statistical differences in average distributions of abilities for different things between men and women, but
A) anyone who extrapolates from that to "men are" or "women are" ANC applies it to an individual is just misunderstanding the entire subject hopelessly
B) it is very naive to assume that those are the sole reasons for societal differences seen in the UK in 2012 given that those differences can vary so widely from place to place

Eg "girls don't like physics" - but when educated in all-girls schools they are much more likely to take physics/IT/engineering so something going on in mixed classes is obviously a factor
Eg "girls aren't good at maths" but actually female participation and achievement in maths varies very widely around the world (International
Maths Olympiad team gender splits vary enormously (and consistently) from country to country).

FrancesFarmer Thu 04-Oct-12 12:29:55

The idea of having an innate talent for certain subjects can be paralyzing for those not considered to have such aptitudes. To reach a high level of expertise in any given subject requires many years of learning and practice; aptitude alone is not enough. The human brain is highly adaptable and instead of people automatically thinking they're useless at something before even trying it, it would be more correct for them to say that they have not developed skills in that subject area.

Another related issue is that some subjects can seem dull or incomprehensible at first but a person might begin to find them fascinating once they reach a more advanced level.

This is why it's important to expose children of both sexes to a wide variety of subjects at school and to inculcate in children the idea that they can master any subject if they apply themselves properly instead of giving up at the first sign of difficulty.

comixminx Thu 04-Oct-12 12:53:40

Following on from DilysPrice's point, the measurable statistical differences that are found between men and women are generally (per Cordelia Fine and other authors in this area) not massive. That is, say there is a detectable difference of skill in map-reading between men and women: typically the difference seen is pretty small, such that the more skilled sex might be only a few percent better than the less skilled sex, on average. Ys, it's detectable and measurable on a repeatable basis; for one thing this doesn't tell us how this difference comes to be (nature or nurture), and for another the average difference is so small that there is a massive overlap between men and women in the middle of the range. In this overlap you are just as likely to get a randomly-chosen member of the "less skilled" gender out-performing the other gender as the other way round. So the story "men are better than women at map-reading" (or whatever) is a doubly-misleading one.

You should also bear in mind that "received wisdom" is a fashion thing and varies through time and cultures. For instance, Deborah Cameron's The Myth of Mars and Venus is a great and thorough debunking of the current received wisdom in our culture that says that women talk more than men and men listen less.

blueshoes Thu 04-Oct-12 13:33:56

It is a mix of nature and nurture.

For example, I believe boys are naturally better at certain things e.g. spatial awareness, which translates to being better at building lego constructions or ball skills, and combined with nurture (encouragement from their parents and interest from other boys) stokes their interest which in turn drives them to get better at it, get more validation etc.

It is a virtuous circle.

LeggyBlondeNE Thu 04-Oct-12 13:41:48

Although Cordelia Fine's book is excellent in some ways, I do think it's important to note not that she 'shows it's all nurture' to paraphrase, but that the neurological case for nature is not yet properly made. I agree that nature tends to be the fall back position when no obvious nurture is observed, which is wrong, but neither is nurture proven to be the sole cause either.

There's a paper which came out this year reviewing sexual dimorphisms (sex differences in shape/size) in the brains' structure and anatomy (amongst other things - I was reading if for different reasons). One interesting finding discussed is that the sex differentitation which occurs at puberty tends to build on differentiation which exists at birth or arises very very early in the neonatal period. Although we can treat babies differently early on I'd be extremely wary of anyone suggesting that could have anatomical effects within a few weeks.

In Psychology most things end up being both nature and nurture and I think this is an issue where there's still no strong evidence to pin down exactly what's going on because it's so complex. The more important thing is to make sure that we definitely do not erect any social barriers to members of either sex fulfilling their potential, so we should be concentrating on the nurture element as far as policy goes.

LeggyBlondeNE Thu 04-Oct-12 13:44:23

Oops, LRD already said much the same! Serves me right for reading quickly!

YoullLaughAboutItOneDay Thu 04-Oct-12 13:47:41

I believe that we simply cannot know whether boys or girls have any innate bias. The science purporting to 'show' differences from brain scans, etc, is very shaky (Cordelia Fine's book is interesting on this), and cannot show the reasons for any differences. As others have already said upthread.

So we simply cannot tell. No boy has ever been raised in a totally gender neutral way, so we have no control group.

On the 'boyish' traits. Almost every time your son has waived a stick or climbed into a puddle, he will have received societal reinforcement of that behaviour. DD1 absolutely loves a good stick, but I have noticed that she never gets positive comments on it the way boys do.

KarlosKKrinkelbeim Thu 04-Oct-12 13:52:23

Looking at my own children I find it very difficult to believe in these innate gender differences. DS's brain operates in exactly the same way as mine, only more so. He has high-functioning autism and my own score on the AQ is high. DD and DH are also very similar in the way their minds operate. it is very clear to me that DS has inherited his neurological characteristics, which some theorists would have us believe constitute an "extreme male" brain, from his female parent.

Lottapianos Thu 04-Oct-12 13:57:13

'On the 'boyish' traits. Almost every time your son has waived a stick or climbed into a puddle, he will have received societal reinforcement of that behaviour'

Absolutely. Most of us have an unconscious bias towards gendered play and experiences. Even tiny children are so aware of what they are 'expected' to do and so sensitive to the reactions of the adults around them.

There's only one thing sadder than hearing a 3 year old boy say 'dolls are for girls' and that's hearing a parent say that this kind of preference is innate, and nothing to do with the messages they have been sending their child from birth about what they 'should' be playing with sad

Uppercut Thu 04-Oct-12 13:57:51

At the extreme ends of intellectual ability men dominate. I suspect this is primarily biological; men feature far more frequently on the autism-disorder spectrum and this is linked to both very high and very low IQs. But for the great majority, as comixminx points out, overlap between the two genders means that general statements about male/female abilities aren't particularly valid.

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 04-Oct-12 13:59:28

Women are increasingly being diagnosed with autism, though. There's some suggestion the smaller numbers of women/girls diagnosed is a fault of the diagnosis, rather than an indication of actual different numbers, if that makes sense.

Mind you, I would say this, because I think Baron-Cohen's thing about autism-extreme male brain-genius is a bit crap.

YoullLaughAboutItOneDay Thu 04-Oct-12 14:13:36

Try a little experiment if you have a two year old Ozzie - next time you are at a playground, turn your back and see if you can tell just from listening whether a mother is talking to a girl or a boy. It is amazing how clear the difference is.

Cordelia Fine also details some interesting experiments, particularly (I think this is her book) one where babies were dressed in a white babygro and then given to an adult to play with being told either the correct or the opposite gender to their real gender. Adults quickly ascribed many 'boy' characteristics' - he's so strong, isn't he physical - to babies they were told were male. And the same for females. They did that even if they were given a girl and told it was a boy (and vice versa) so they weren't picking up on anything in the child.

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about this stuff at the moment, so here are some of the things I have heard in the last fortnight:

-DD2 (aged one), climbing a railing: "Ooh, it's just like having a boy";
-DD2 playing with a doll: "Ahh, a typical girl"
-Boy hits DD2 over the head with a toy: "Sorry, he's just such a boy" Followed by a little giggle;
-DD1 (three) says she doesn't want me to come with her to the toilet at playgroup: "That's girls for you";
- Overheard conversation at playgroup: "Well, of course, boys potty train so much later than girls. He will get there.";
- Mixed group of children with sticks: "Ah, boys just love sticks don't they" (despite the fact that two of the group were girls,three boys);
- DD2 had to choose a particular product in pink, blue or yellow. She chose pink. Fine. Later on she told me, apropos of nothing, that she 'had' to choose pink because she was a girl. I asked what she meant, and she pointed out that every girl she knew had the pink one and every boy the blue one.

If I think about it too long I get all defeated and maudlin, so I have to try not to.

kim147 Thu 04-Oct-12 14:18:38

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

fossil97 Thu 04-Oct-12 14:26:55

I suspect it's some of both. Obviously men and women are biologically different and it would make sense for brains to have the tendency to support this, so the gender responsible for childbirth has (on average) greater nurturing instinct, etc.

I've read that you can define "masculine" and "feminine" tendencies, but then show that both men and women have a spectrum of these tendencies to some extent, and there is a lot of overlap. The social conditioning and nurturing then tends to polarise thing worse than they should be by only reinforcing certain traits.
And then the effect gets mistaken for the cause and you get the "men can't..." and "women can't..."

You'llLaughAboutItOneday, I'm with you on the boy-girl comments. I only have DS's so missed the opportunity to anti-pink a daughter but I always make a point of commenting to other people's little girls "You're clever" or "Brilliant kick" etc!

Uppercut Thu 04-Oct-12 14:33:17

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

Lottapianos Thu 04-Oct-12 14:37:34

YoullLaughAboutItOneDay, it really does get you down, doesn't it? You may have seen me ranting on here about colleagues (I work in Early Years) who are forever coming out with stuff about how boys and girls are different. My favourite was the one who said 'obviously we all want to be 'women's lib' and everything confused but boys and girls just are different' <WTF?>
It drives me around the flaming bend when parents do it but when professionals do it too, I think it's just downright ignorant! And it's so dangerous too - what are we to make of little boys and girls who don't behave how they are 'supposed' to behave based on their gender? Where does that leave them and how does it leave them feeling? confused

I find that people who are invested in the whole 'innate differences' theory also tend to have less than progressive views about equality within adult relationships. The colleague who talks the most about boys and girls being different is also the first to talk about 'man flu' and other sexist claptrap hmm

Aboutlastnight Thu 04-Oct-12 14:40:28


There is no definitive scientific evidence that Menander women are cognitively different.

It is social engineering/ expectations at play. But these environmental factors can change the shape of the brain meaning that men and women may become more disposed to certain ways of thinking.

Uppercut Thu 04-Oct-12 14:47:52

"There is no definitive scientific evidence that Menander women are cognitively different.

It is social engineering/ expectations at play."

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and proving environmental factors are at play does not automatically exclude the possiblity of gender-based genetic influences.

Aboutlastnight Thu 04-Oct-12 14:52:38


There's no evidence. I know Simon Baron Cohen is researching this with newborns but there is no evidence - as yet.

Of course environmental factors come into play as soon as baby is born and it's impossible to Seperate nature/ nurture as one affects the other and vice versa.

Later on, hormones cause differences. But in terms of cognition? Nah, no evidence.

LRDtheFeministDragon Thu 04-Oct-12 14:53:09

upper - I'm not autistic; I just think his work is fucking annoying. Not a very subtle critique maybe! grin

He didn't have to call it 'extreme male brain' and his idea of what makes a genius seems quite bizarre to me (and designed to reinforce the kind of image of genius that Woolf is taking shots at in A Room of One's Own).

But yes, certainly, time will tell if there's a correlation with sex. I don't mean to call it either way - I was just suggesting one reason I know of why people still aren't sure about autism.

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