Blame the brain: science and stereotypes

Professor Gina Rippon, Professor of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University and British Science Association Honorary Fellow

Science is commonly heralded as a progressive force but as Imran Khan has pointed out in his essay, there can be a dark side. This is usually concerned with developing the means of physical violence or mass destruction, deliberately or inadvertently, but sometimes it can provide invidious support for dysfunctional social structures or as a brake on progress towards equality. The study and interpretation of sex1 differences in the brain unfortunately provides an extraordinarily detailed example of how science does indeed not exist in a moral (or cultural) vacuum. Here, cultural beliefs, societal stereotypes and political agendas have influenced not only the research process but also served to distort the membership of the scientific community itself.2

A fascination with finding differences between female and male brains has existed as long as the science of neuroanatomy. It is has been particularly influenced by a brand of biological determinism driven by social concepts of women’s ‘proper place’, and the ‘natural order of things’. In the 19th century, anatomists identified man as ’homo frontalis’ and woman as ‘homo parietalis’, with the latter profile equated with the brains of children or ‘more primitive’ races.3 In the 21st century, with access to the technological marvels of brain imaging, the understanding of sex differences in the brain is still beset by just the same sort of problems that characterised earlier research. Some of them stem from misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what brain imaging studies are actually telling us, often the product of ill-informed journalism or populist ‘science’ writings (neurotrash).4 Other problems involve bad science, or ‘neurosexism’,5 where scientists themselves contribute to the accumulation of neurotrash, by asking the wrong questions in the wrong way and using outdated and disproved stereotypes to explain their findings.6 Despite powerful (and replicable) evidence that brain differences are not due to the sex of their owners but to the world in which they have developed and their life-long exposure to different experiences,7 it is proving extraordinarily hard to dismantle beliefs in ‘hard-wiring’, in immutable sex differences in brain structures which, we are urged, can and must be acknowledged in the lives of girls and boys, men and women, in the educational opportunities they can make use of, the careers they should aspire to, the roles they can and should play.8

But there is good research – neuronews – where brain imaging can make positive contributions to the saga by informing the real story – that all brains (whether they belong to a female or a male) are plastic and permeable, and can be shaped to ensure a better future for all. A really important goal for the British Science Association and its new vision would be to ensure that everyone can understand the issues in an area which affects us all – parents, children, employers, researchers – and be aware that, even in science, there can be fiction as well as fact. Then we can root out the neurotrash, stamp out the neurosexism and make way for the neuronews.

  1. The term ‘sex’ and not ‘gender’ is used here to refer to the biological aspects of this debate, as opposed to those associated with socially determined roles and expectations.
  2. Schiebinger, L., The mind has no sex?: Women in the origins of modern science. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1991.
  3. Emil Huschke, Skull, Brain, and Mind in Men and Animals (Jena: F. Mauke, 1854); quoted in Carl Vogt, Lectures on Man, His Place in Creation, and in the History of the Earth (London, 1864), 167.
  4. Eliot, L. The trouble with sex differences. Neuron, 72(6), 2011, 895-898. www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RWvDTKbFHg [Accessed: 6 October 2015]
  5. Fine, C., Delusions of gender: The real science behind sex differences. Duxford, England: Icon Books, 2010.
  6. Rippon, G., Jordan-Young, R., Kaiser, A., & Fine, C., Recommendations for sex/gender neuroimaging research: key principles and implications for research design, analysis, and interpretation. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8. 2014.
  7. Fine, C., Jordan-Young, R., Kaiser, A., & Rippon, G., Plasticity, plasticity, plasticity… and the rigid problem of sex. Trends in cognitive sciences, 17(11), 2013, 550-551.
  8. Baron-Cohen, Simon., The Essential Difference: Male and female brains and the truth about autism. London: Penguin, 2004.

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