The Sexist Science of the Female Brain

Research has long searched to affirm gender stereotypes, not explain them.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

It’s a myth that crops up in popular culture, as much as it does neuroscience — the idea that men and women’s brains are biologically different, explaining all gender differences in our world. So persistent that Doctor Gina Rippon, a researcher in the field of cognitive neuroscience at the Aston Brain Centre in Birmingham, compares it to a game of whack-a-mole. Popping up when your back is turned, over and over again, despite the fact that biological differences have been debunked, countless times, and that the differences that exist have been proved to be tied to the plasticity of the brain, and its evolution with regards to what each person lives.

So what is the deal with male and female brains? And how do we explain the fact that they are still seen as fundamentally different, despite all evidence to the contrary?

The biological facts

“The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart,”

— Lise Eliot in Nature

One oft-cited statistic is that men’s brains are 10 per cent bigger than female brains, but all of men’s organs are bigger on average, and that doesn’t mean they function differently, Lise Eliot, professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science writes in Pink Brain, Blue Brain. Linked to this difference in size are certain other biological differences: certain features, such as the ratio of grey to white matter or the cross-sectional area of a nerve tract called the corpus callosum, scale slightly non-linearly with brain size.

As for how the brains of men and women work, the reasons behind the differences is to be found neither on Venus nor Mars but in Neuroplasticity — meaning, the fact that the human brain is highly malleable, and carries the trace of our life experiences. Our past determines our personality and how our brain works — so the fact that society treats men and women differently is, in itself, enough to make their brains work differently.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic

“All the experiences in your life — from single conversations to your broader culture — shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry — and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast detailed patterns in your neural networks.”

David Eagleman, neuroscientist — The Brain: The Story of You

“… the very structure of our brain — the relative size of different regions, the strength of connections between one area and another — reflects the lives we have led. Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken”

Sharon Begley, Science Writer — Train your Mind, Change your Brain: How a New Science Reveals our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves

Everything from our habits to one-off events shapes new links between our synapses, modifying our brain on a biological level. Grey matter can shrink or thicken, new connections between neurones are formed or severed… this manifests itself in a change of our abilities. For instance, when we learn something new, new neural pathways open up in our brains. When a pathway is severed, we might forget someone's name.

Plasticity basically means that culture becomes biology, and a gendered society becomes a gendered brain.

Because of this, to see whether or not brains are different between men and women, need to look at newborns — the human brain before gender expectations reach it. In The Gendered Brain, Rippon shows that there is next to no evidence of brain sex differences in newborns. As they grow older, children’s “cerebral sponges” absorb the norms of society and respond to their carers expectations, which explains why children may prefer gendered toys, baby girls recognise faces more easily, and baby boys walk earlier.

According to Lise Eliot, the myth of the gendered brain has been maintained by certain flaws in the world of research and the media.

A brain study purports to discover a difference between men and women; it is publicized as, ‘At last, the truth!’, taunting political correctness; other researchers expose some hyped extrapolation or fatal design flaw; and, with luck, the faulty claim fades away — until the next post hoc analysis produces another ‘Aha!’ moment and the cycle repeats.

— Lise Eliot, Neuroscientist in Nature

It is somewhat frustrating to be treated according to your gender your entire life, for that to forge the way your brain works, and then to hear that all gender differences stem from Nature and Biology. Rippon compares it to being trapped in a “biosocial straitjacket” that diverts a basically unisex brain down one of two culturally gendered pathways.

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