The Gendered Brain
Author: Gina Rippon
In what is a truly passionate writing style, the author of this book critically appraises the concept of gender brain differences, specifically countering the predominant idea that such differences are either significant or inherent. She approaches the rather sensitive subject through its disparate themes – academic, social, and political – and she emphatically questions the scientific basis for many of the touted differences between the brains of men and women. Attributing most of these differences to the cultural effects of ‘a gendered world‘, and to ‘the brain changing effects of social processes‘, she argued that society’s acceptance of these differences has engendered ‘many damaging stereotypes‘, inhibited ‘social progress and equality‘, entrenched the suppression and denigration of women, and limited their participation in such spheres as education, politics, science, and commerce. The author did not just appraise the evidence of brain gender differences, but she argued for an approach that looks ‘beyond the simple category of sex‘, and in the process she made substantial conceptual leaps such as challenging the whole notion of binary gender (page xi-xxi, 3 and 330-345).
In an exhaustive review of the neuroscience of brain differences, the author scrutinised a myriad of historical and contemporary theories and studies which helped to establish and perpetuate what she depicted as the myth of gender brain differences. Phrenology, the scientific field advanced by Franz Joseph Gall, is one such obsolete theory she cited for its damaging contention that brain and skull sizes correlate with gender. It is interesting that some of the works that toppled phrenology, carried out by Karl Pearson and Alice Lee, showed that many eminent male anatomists had relatively small heads. She also pointed out that many earlier studies of the gendered brain reported either contradictory results or statistically non-significant differences. She referred to one such study on the gender differences in the size of the corpus callosum, carried out by Ralph Holloway and Christine DeLacoste-Utansing, which she said was relatively small but ‘left a lasting legacy in the study of sex differences of the brain’. She asserted that countless studies of brain gender differences were marred and biased by such factors as technical difficulties in measurements and poor imaging technology. Concluding that no consensus has ever been achieved on brain differences, she affirmed that ‘the question of sex differences in the brain…is an area of entrenched opinion‘ which is populated by myths which appear on different iterations over time (pages 6-10, 17-18 and xiii-xiv).
The book’s analysis of more contemporary studies of gender brain differences was also thorough and frequently scathing. Such was the case for example when she reviewed the research of Simon Baron-Cohen, a notable proponent of gender brain differences. She particularly argued that Baron-Cohen’s studies which portray the male brain as systemizing, and the female brain as empathising, were characterised by weak methodologies and inadequate measurement scales. In a similar way she censured the studies carried out by Jennifer Connelly on the ‘innate male preference for mechanical objects‘ for not being blinded, and for not being replicable. She also denounced The Female Brain – the popular book written by physician Louann Brizendine – for, amongst other things, citing faulty studies and promoting scientific inaccuracies and anecdotes. On the other hand she endorsed the most recent brain studies which deployed more precise imaging technologies, maintaining that these cutting-edge methods demonstrate that ‘many parts of the brain are simultaneously involved in all aspects of behaviour‘. To illustrate the influence of environment on brain differences, she cited the seminal study by Eleanor Maguire on the larger size of the hippocampus of London taxi drivers as symbolic of the brain’s neuroplasticity. She nevertheless admitted that ‘we are still a long way from understanding how all this activity translates into behaviour’ (pages 50-54, 175-177, 91, and 108-111).
Despite her strongly-held views on gender differences, the author nevertheless conceded that there are definite differences between the male brain and the female brain, and that there are unexplained ‘gender paradoxes‘ and many areas of uncertainties. For example, she acknowledged that ‘on average, men’s brains are bigger than women’s brains’, adding that this ‘has implications for all the structures within those brains’. She also conceded that the size difference goes back to the time of birth when ‘baby boys tend to have larger brains by volume than girls’, and subsequently ‘boy brains grow faster than girl brains’. Other gender differences she recognised but explained away as unsubstantial, artifactual, or environmentally-driven included a higher grey and white matter volume in male babies; earlier and better developed female language skills; better male ability to focus on novel stimuli; and ‘a general female superiority’ in facial recognition skills dating back to infancy. In view of these established differences, the author conceded that ‘the simple answer to the question of whether there are sex differences in the brain at birth or in early childhood is that we don’t know‘ (pages 19, xix, 148-154 and 173-183).
A key factor the author cited to explain the observed differences in male and female brains is that they are socially-determined, a phenomenon she argued is active even before birth. She contended that brains are closely ‘entangled‘ with their environment, and they have the ability to adapt to stereotypes. Because they are ‘plastic and malleable‘ in this way, she suggested that brains are products of ‘the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners’. To emphasise the impact of the social environment on the brain, the author submitted that the infant brain is ‘focused more than we ever knew on learning the rules of social engagement‘, adding that our brains are ‘actively absorbing and reflecting the attitudes and expectations of those around us’. She referred to several environmental and social determinants of gender differences such as the influence of toys; ‘the attitudes and expectations of teachers‘; ‘the presence or absence of role models; ‘occupational choices‘; cultural and media ‘messages about sex and gender; and social scripts which ‘map out the rules for social situations’ and which cover ‘expectations about how someone will behave’. She also illustrated the effect of these factors on observed behaviours with examples such as the higher frequency and duration of eye contact in girls (page xvi, 140-145, 167, 198-199, 121 and 171).
A major concern the author addressed in the book is the societal impact of the notion that there are significant differences between male and female brains. In this regard she explored the way gender stereotypes, derived from erroneous scientific beliefs about the female brain, serve to restrict the potential of women in many fields of human endeavour. Illustrating this with ‘the stereotype that women can’t do science‘, she demonstrated the way this works as a self-fulfilling prophecy to inhibit women from doing science. The author strenuously stressed that ‘these stereotypes are not harmless, but have ‘real consequences on girls (and boys) and the decisions they will go on to make about their lives’. She was particularly concerned that gender stereotypes are entrenched very early in life, such that ‘up to the age of seven, children are quite inflexible in their beliefs about gender characteristics‘. Referring to the concept of pinkification for example, the idea that females favour colours in the ‘reddish end of the spectrum’, she cited studies which show that there is no female pink preference up to the age of two years. She however concluded that ‘the jury is still out in this recasting of the nature-nurture divide in terms of the biological versus the social origins of pinkification’, and of other gender preferences (pages 201-223).
This book is more than just a polemic on brain gender differences, but a whirlwind tour of how the latest neuroscience technologies are advancing our knowledge and understanding of the very contentious subject of brain gender differences. Bringing the nature versus nurture debate into this context, the author legitimately questions the established paradigm that these differences are innate and significant. The book’s strength lies in its reliance on the latest research into the subject to point out the faulty assumptions and conclusions of previous studies. Whilst acknowledging that there are variations across the sexes, the author however minimised or explained away these differences as adaptations to the environment. Although the arguments in the book do not resolve the debate either way – the author’s strong conclusions often not supported by the more nuanced results of the studies she cited – they do highlight the uncertainties and grey areas that permeate the subject, and the need for caution in interpreting results of studies that have hitherto been accepted uncritically.
This is an important contribution to the long-standing and often heated debate about gender brain differences. The author’s arguments, robustly stated, are hard to dispute, supported as they are by the latest understanding of brain processes. The book succeeds in undermining the certainty of the paradigm that there are significant brain differences between the sexes. She showed that where subtle differences have been established, they are less likely to be in-built traits, and more likely to be the consequences of environmentally-driven neuroplasticity. The book clearly shows that gender brain differences are more nuanced than previously thought, but as is the case with all nature versus nurture debates, the book confirms that there are no black and white answers to this one. The author however rightly calls for society to reconsider its attitude to the genders which are based on weak evidence of innate brain differences. The issues the author highlights are at the centre of healthcare, and I recommend the book to all doctors
Publisher, Place, Year: The Bodley Head, London, 2019
Number of chapters: 14
Number of pages: 424
Star rating: 5