Pink Brain, Blue Brain

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, September 14, 2009 | Go to article overview

Pink Brain, Blue Brain


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley; Begley is NEWSWEEK's science editor.

Claims of sex differences fall apart.

Among certain parents, it is an article of faith not only that they should treat their sons and daughters alike, but also that they do. If Jack gets Lincoln Logs and Tetris, and joins the soccer team and the math club, so does Jill. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, doesn't think these parents are lying, exactly. But she would like to bring some studies to their attention.

In one, scientists dressed newborns in gender-neutral clothes and misled adults about their sex. The adults described the "boys" (actually girls) as angry or distressed more often than did adults who thought they were observing girls, anddescribed the "girls" (actually boys) as happy and socially engaged more than adults who knew the babies were boys. Dozens of such -disguised-gender experiments have shown that adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens. In another study, mothers estimated how steep a slope their 11-month-olds could crawl down. Moms of boys got it right to within one degree; moms of girls underestimated what their daughters could do by nine degrees, even though there are no differences in the motor skills of infant boys and girls. But that prejudice may cause parents to unconsciously limit their daughter's physical activity. How we perceive children--sociable or remote, physically bold or reticent--shapes how we treat them and therefore what experiences we give them. Since life leaves footprints on the very structure and function of the brain, these various experiences produce sex differences in adult behavior and brains--the result not of innate and inborn nature but of nurture.

For her new book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps--And What We Can Do About It, Eliot immersed herself in hundreds of scientific papers (her bibliography runs 46 pages). Marching through the claims like Sherman through Georgia, she explains that assertions of innate sex differences in the brain are either "blatantly false," "cherry-picked from single studies," or "extrapolated from rodent research" without being confirmed in people. For instance, the idea that the band of fibers connecting the right and left brain is larger in women, supposedly supporting their more "holistic" thinking, is based on a single 1982 study of only 14 brains. Fifty other studies, taken together, found no such sex difference--not in adults, not in newborns. …

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