“Pinkification” is but one of the intrigues that British neuroscientist Gina Rippon examines in “Gender and Our Brains.” Dense with research and point of view, the book argues that science has for too long followed erroneous logic to support the notion that men and women have different brains. At best, these errors prove unhelpful; at worst, they do harm. Science might help us understand why little girls seem drawn to princesses and little boys to trucks, Rippon argues, but first we have to ask the right questions.
For centuries, the scientifically curious have been assuming facts not in evidence, and a whole lot followed from that. In droll (if demoralizing) prose, Rippon offers a highlight reel of historic observations regarding the supposed inferiority of the female intellect. One of her favorites comes from the French scientist Gustave Le Bon, who in 1879 published his opinion that the occasional presence of intellectually superior women was so rare as to be like a “two-headed gorilla.”
Researchers not bent on finding women’s brains lacking often declared them equal-but-different, supposing that brains differentiate by gender to encourage the sexes to pursue complementary roles for the sake of survival. Evolutionary thinking makes room for theories such as one Rippon cites from 2007 that suggested women may have a biologically based love of pink because it helped our foremothers hunt berries.
Science has developed explanations for every bit of accepted wisdom about gender differences. Favorites include size (male brains typically weigh a bit more than female brains), structure and patterns of brain activity — how the parts work together. Perhaps higher exposure to testosterone in utero makes a brain inherently more male.
But what exactly is a male brain, anyway? Rippon urges us to check our premises.
She has been criticized as a politically motivated “harridan,” and her ideas can sometimes feel determinedly contrarian. But Rippon isn’t a gender-difference denier, she writes; she just wants us to accurately understand whatever differences do exist.
In considering study after study across disciplines, she notes plenty of instances of what she sees as methodological weaknesses or errors, and she makes room for alternate explanations of findings. The reporting can be flawed, too, both in the scientific and the popular press. Research results that seem to support the idea of essential gender-based differences are much more likely to be publicized than studies that do not do so, she points out.
A big problem, she contends, is that we radically underestimate the importance of the brain’s ongoing moldability. Until fairly recently, we assumed that brain development was more or less fixed by adulthood. These days we know that neuroplasticity is at work throughout our lives. Our brains are primed from the start to metabolize information, create pathways that help us function, and remake themselves in response to things like habits, environment and injuries.
“It’s no longer a question of our brains being a product of either nature or nurture but realizing how entangled the ‘nature’ of our brains is with the brain-changing ‘nurture’ provided by our life experiences,” Rippon writes.
Since there is, she contends, no single, discrete attribute that makes a brain one gender or another, it’s important to look for other explanations for how differences in preferences and skills develop. A wider scope avoids the trap of reinforcing harmful stereotypes, such as women’s alleged unsuitability for fields like math and science.
Much of “Gender and Our Brains” is written for the scientifically savvy reader. Rippon’s methodical look at research is occasionally textbook-dry but also necessary to the making of her case. As a nonscientist, I wondered what weaknesses in her critiques might be found by a fair-minded expert with no dog in this particular hunt.
But Rippon clearly hopes to be heard by a wider audience. In a chapter titled “The Gendered Waters in Which We Swim,” she skewers the trendy “gender reveal” party, in which expectant parents deploy pink or blue accessories (cake, confetti, balloons) to announce the sex of their babe-in-utero. It’s weird but telling that we start babies’ lives with such a focus on gender.
Civilians can also learn from her observations on what she delightfully calls
the era of “neurotrash.” Ushered in with the establishment in the 1990s of functional brain imaging, neurotrash describes the use of brain-scan data to oversimplify or mislead audiences about almost every aspect of human behavior. Among her complaints is the use of prettily colored brain-scan photos, which obliterate subtlety and can lead a viewer to infer a dramatic result where none exists.
And speaking of unfortunate conclusions, here’s a warning: It can be very tempting to overinterpret Rippon’s messages. Throughout the book, she seeks to remove the monocle and replace it with a kaleidoscope, offering multiple ways of seeing a given question. In a section that scrutinizes premenstrual syndrome, for instance, she mentions studies that, when taken together, suggest (a) PMS is actually not well-defined because the list of symptoms is too long and vague, and (b) PMS-related hormone changes can include the positive.
The less-careful reader — or any woman who has ever been gripped, say, by monthly bouts of rage — might conclude that Rippon is denying the symptoms themselves. She does not go there. She does, however, encourage us to consider how the idea of PMS connects to sexist notions of female instability and to wonder why women in Western cultures report more symptoms.
For brain scientists, “Gender and Our Brains” is a call to rethink moldy assumptions about the importance of sex differences. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder that gender messaging is never a nonissue. It helps sell products, supports power structures and, for better and worse, tells boys and girls what the human tribe expects of them.
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