My Brain's Bigger Than Yours; Forget the 'Mars and Venus' Cliches - One Academic Claims There's No Difference between Male and Female Brains. Here She Makes Her Case, While Three Other Clever Clogs Beg to Differ

Daily Mail (London), September 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

My Brain's Bigger Than Yours; Forget the 'Mars and Venus' Cliches - One Academic Claims There's No Difference between Male and Female Brains. Here She Makes Her Case, While Three Other Clever Clogs Beg to Differ


Byline: by Professor Gina Rippon

WHAT an idiot I must be! Haven't I noticed that women like to chat for hours about their feelings, while men prefer to tinker in the garage? don't I know that women are as useless at reading maps as men are at reading the expressions on our faces?

These are just a few of the widely accepted differences between the sexes, and my refusal to accept they really exist -- let alone that they are explained by differences between male and female brains -- seems to have left many, including some respected contemporaries in the world of neuroscience, wondering whether I have a brain at all.

But the belief that there is some scientific basis to this perceived wisdom is not something I can subscribe to.

While I don't deny that, in our society, the average man may behave differently in some respects to the average woman, I am tired of being told the reason for this is that our brains have been hardwired to function differently.

Bookshops have long been packed with best-sellers that imply male and female brains are almost as different from each other as our reproductive systems. I call these books 'neurotrash'. On the flimsiest of evidence, they argue our differences are biological and natural.

They give no consideration to the fact the brain is shaped and moulded by our experiences and our environment, no thought to what extent so-called 'male' and 'female' behaviours are learned as we develop, and are no sturdy proof that a brain is not simply an organ living in a male or female body.

Instead, they base their case on a series of unscientific leaps to come up with a best-selling formula.

Typical arguments are that female brains are better at empathising, while men's are wired for analysing the physical world; women are better suited to caring and nurturing instead of so-called 'male' jobs. It's nonsense -- or if it isn't I haven't seen the neurological evidence that proves it.

No neuroscientist has ever proven that all male and all female brains are fundamentally different -- though many have tried.

These authors take studies often conducted not on humans but on rats, fish, or chickens, which may illustrate a small difference between the way males and females perform in a certain task, and then extrapolate wildy.

If, say, 500 men and 500 women were asked to perform a map-reading task and results showed the top 5 per cent were men and the bottom 5per cent were women, peddlers of neurotrash would immediately conclude men's brains are better at map-reading than women's. Forget the 90 per cent of men and women who performed equally well.

Forget too, that within that 90 per cent, there will be a large number of women who out-performed a large number of men.

Is it right that what we take from such a study is that being male or female affects your ability to perform a certain task? no. Surely, it would be more useful for neuroscientists to find out what those who performed well in the task had in common? I guarantee it will not be their gender.

But a swift glance through not only populist literature but also the more supposedly rigorous scientific texts will show this difference being reported in terms of 'male brains' vs. 'Female brains'.

And let's not forget that, in the scientific community, studies are only published when they produce results that appear significant. For every study that shows women are better at, say, multi-tasking, there will be countless other unpublished studies showing there was no difference between the sexes at all.

Away from the spotlight stand a number of increasingly concerned neuroscientists who believe research findings are being misinterpreted and made to fit the popular belief that biological and structural differences in men and women explains the difference in their social roles and status.

In the absence of proof that we were born different -- and not simply behave differently as a result of other environmental factors -- I can only conclude there are politics at play. …

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My Brain's Bigger Than Yours; Forget the 'Mars and Venus' Cliches - One Academic Claims There's No Difference between Male and Female Brains. Here She Makes Her Case, While Three Other Clever Clogs Beg to Differ
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