In the debate on gender and the brain, sorting evidence from errors

Karen Sandstrom

The Washington Post – A friend of mine rants about the ocean of glittery pink playthings her daughter receives as gifts.

She loathes the aggressive colour coding in store aisles. More than three decades after astronaut Sally Ride became the first woman in space, can it be that our culture still wants little girls to stay in their lane?

‘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 demoralising) prose, Rippon offers a highlight reel of historic observations regarding the supposed inferiority of the female intellect. One of her favourites 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.” Nice.

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. Favourites 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 criticised by some 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 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 publicised 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 metabolise 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 realising 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.