Magazine article Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources

This Is Your Brain on Feminism: Evaluating the Claims of Neuroscience about Sex, Gender, and the Brain

Magazine article Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources

This Is Your Brain on Feminism: Evaluating the Claims of Neuroscience about Sex, Gender, and the Brain

Article excerpt

Robyn Bluhm, Anne Jaap Jacobson, & Heidi Lene Maibom, eds., NEUROFEMINISM: ISSUES AT THE INTERSECTION OF FEMINIST THEORY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. (New directions in philosophy and cognitive science.) 296p. bibl. index. $90.00, ISBN 978-0230296732.

In the late 1800s, Dr. Edward Clarke of Harvard Medical University advanced his profession's theory on sex difference: namely, that women's distinct (and inferior) physiology required their exclusion from serious educational endeavors. The claim that educating a woman would lead to an enlarged brain and shriveled uterus as well as a "puny race" became the accepted wisdom of the day, substantiated by claims of "scientific" evidence. (1)

Although the field of brain science no longer assumes that women's education contributes to physical deterioration, gender-based stereotypes remain deeply entrenched in studies of human physiology that seek to uncover the basis for sex differences in behaviors, attitudes, and abilities. Feminist writers have long focused a critical lens on the presumed objectivity and neutrality of medical science, illuminating the assumptions and biases that pervade the scientific method, its data, and its findings. (2) While claims regarding the physiological source of sex differences have changed, the underlying stereotype--that women's aptitude for caregiving and nurturing behaviors is rooted in and largely determined by biology--remains. This new volume in Palgrave Macmillan's New Directions in Philosophy and Cognitive Science series is, according to its editors, "the first collection of essays to bring a critical feminist perspective to the recent brain sciences" (p. 1). Its chapters offer a broad range of theoretical and methodological challenges to these new ways of studying the brain, reiterating and reformulating age-old challenges to the scientific method, as well as leveling specific critiques at the limitations of neuroscience.

The volume begins with an introduction from the editors, establishing the underlying logic of the book--addressing the use and misuse of terms such as sex, gender, and biology and explaining the varied meanings of these terms in the scientific and feminist canons. This introduction establishes the context for each essay's evaluation of this new science, providing a snapshot of the issues most often addressed in feminist critiques of scientific research.

The essays that follow are diverse in content and approach, yet a number of themes and commonalities emerge. Many of the authors probe the traditional understanding of scientific data as objective and value-free, leading to further questions regarding the interpretation of these data to substantiate a correlation between brain structure and observable behavioral differences. The final set of essays in the volume initiates work on a feminist philosophy of science, including both theoretical and methodological avenues to bridge the gulf between feminist research and the life sciences.

For readers seeking a new feminist challenge to the presumed objectivity of scientific data, the initial two essays delve into the deconstruction of mechanical objectivity and the implications of interpreting machine-made images of the brain to draw conclusions regarding an individual's mental state. On a more basic level, both authors point to a question that recurs throughout the book--What are we seeing when we see an image of the brain?

The volume also includes a number of essays that apply the aforementioned theoretical challenges to the meaning and interpretation of neuroimaging in prominent psychological and cognitive studies. …

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