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The Tiny Differences in the Littlest Brains

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By Emily Bazelon
Sunday, October 11, 2009

PINK BRAIN, BLUE BRAIN

How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- and What We Can Do About It

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By Lise Eliot

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

420 pp. $25

In one of the eye-opening studies cited in Lise Eliot's masterful new book on gender and the brain, mothers brought their 11-month-olds to a lab so the babies could crawl down a carpeted slope. The moms pushed a button to change the slope's angle based on what they thought their children could handle. And then the babies were tested to see how steep a slope they could navigate.

The results?

Girls and boys proved equally adept at crawling and risk-taking: On their own, they tried and conquered the same slopes. But the mothers of the girls -- unlike the mothers of the boys -- underestimated their daughters' aptitude by a significant margin.

"Sex differences in the brain are sexy," Eliot writes. And so we tend to notice them everywhere. "But there's enormous danger," she says, in our exaggeration. It leads us to see gender, beginning at an early age, only in terms of what we expect to see, and to assume that sex differences are innate and immutable. We forget that the differences within each sex -- among girls and among boys -- are usually greater than the gaps between the two.

Our assumptions "crystallize into children's self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies." Girls' slightly lesser interest in puzzles and building toys is reinforced instead of challenged, and it turns into a gap in spatial skills and map reading. Parents and teachers see a boy lagging in reading and verbal skills and shrug it off with, "But of course, he's a boy."

Eliot's contribution in "Pink Brain, Blue Brain" is to explain, clearly and authoritatively, what the research on brain-based sex difference actually shows, and to offer helpful suggestions about how we can erase the small gaps for our children instead of turning them into larger ones. "How can we help boys express their feelings, learn to read and write better, and feel at home in the school classroom?" she asks. "How can we help girls stay confident in math, learn how to read a map, and embrace technology and competition?" If you are interested in the latest smart thinking about these crucial topics, Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, will be your new favorite expert.

Her approach is especially welcome because the exaggeration of brain-based sex differences has launched a publishing flurry in the past few years from credentialed authors who should know better. Eliot calls them out by name -- the prime culprits are Louann Brizendine, Leonard Sax and Michael Gurian -- and hacks away at their groundless claims. She's not in ideological denial: "There's a good reason why parents so often comment on boys' and girls' different toy preferences," she writes. "This is one of the largest differences between the sexes that psychologists have uncovered."

But Eliot's trump card is the brain's plasticity. Our brains are works in progress. They change based on experience, especially in early childhood. So a child's environment matters in terms of the skills and interests he or she develops. That doesn't mean pushing trucks on the 3-year-old girl who wants dolls -- we've all seen that experiment fail. But how about giving her a Lego set, sidewalk chalk or even a doll stroller, to encourage her to move around and think in spatial terms?

Eliot also shows that the brain-based differences that seem so immovable in childhood can lessen with age. She gives us a pair of graphs, side by side. In the first, which shows the height distribution of men and women, the two curves show little overlap. You can see at a glance that most men are taller than most women. The second graph shows the "difference value" for sex in scores on science and verbal fluency tests. This time, the curves are closely aligned. In contrast to height, the picture of male and female difference in most psychological and cognitive measures is really one of similarity.

In an era when advocates for boys and girls shrilly compete over which sex has it worse in school, Eliot is remarkably even-handed. She weaves in anecdotes about her two sons and daughter, sympathizing in a way that doesn't feel contrived. My only real criticism of this book is the title, "Pink Brain, Blue Brain," which falls for the temptation to sell sex difference as sexy. But Eliot makes up for this on every page. Reading this book made me see my kids and their world differently. Shed of the usual stereotypes, I can pick up on the far subtler interplay of sex-based similarity and difference that is real and profound.

Emily Bazelon is an editor of DoubleX, Slate's women's Web site.



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