Sexism on the brain

In 2008, a group of researchers at Yale did an experiment which they wrote up and published under the title ‘The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’.  Their subjects, a mixture of experts and non-experts, were presented with descriptions of psychological phenomena, each followed by an explanation, and asked to indicate how satisfying they found the explanation. The researchers had included both good and bad explanations, and in half the explanations of each type they had also inserted a logically irrelevant reference to neuroscience. The experts were not impressed, but the non-experts were: they rated explanations with neuroscience more convincing than those without. The effect was particularly striking with bad explanations, where the inclusion of irrelevant information about the brain seemed to stop people from noticing quite basic logical flaws.

The ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscience has been harnessed for all kinds of purposes by all kinds of people. For every scientist doing her best to communicate the complexity of contemporary brain research, there are a hundred non-scientists—self-help gurus, life-coaches, marketing consultants—churning out what has been labelled ‘neurobollocks’, a species of discourse that purports to be scientific, but is actually, in the words of one article on the subject, ‘self-help books dressed up in a lab coat’.

One flourishing branch of neurobollocks (dubbed ‘neurosexism’ by the psychologist Cordelia Fine) deals with the perennially popular topic of differences between men and women, which it explains with reference to the idea that human brains come in two distinct varieties, male and female. According to this literature, it’s because they have female brains that most women are rubbish at parking and maths, but great at multi-tasking (unless, presumably, they’re attempting to park a car while solving equations). And it’s also because they have female brains that women are better with language than men.

The language connection explains why over the years I have felt obliged to read such classics of neurosexism as Why Men Don’t Iron, which proclaimed on its cover in 1999 that ‘men’s brains are built for action and women’s for talking: men do, women communicate’; and The Female Brain, a bestseller in 2006, whose author was so convinced that women’s brains are built for talking, she reproduced the invented statistic that men on average utter 7000 words a day whereas women on average utter 20,000.  (As I explained in an earlier post, real research shows that women don’t talk more than men: where there’s a difference, it usually goes in the other direction.)

But the King and Queen of brain-sex bollocks are the husband-and-wife team Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of a series of advice books for heterosexual couples with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. The Peases specialize in taking familiar self-help platitudes and mashing them up with exactly the kind of irrelevant (and in their case usually garbled) neuroscience which the Yale researchers used in their experiment.

In Pease-world you encounter some quite remarkable claims. At one point in Why Men Don’t Listen they inform readers that

When a male talks, MRI scans show that his entire left hemisphere becomes active as it searches to find a centre for speaking, but is unable to find much. Consequently, men aren’t much good at talking.

Women, on the other hand, are endowed with conversational superpowers:

With a greater flow of information between left and right hemispheres and specific brain locations for speech, most women can talk about several subjects simultaneously—sometimes in a single sentence.

At a guess, what’s being referenced here is the (much disputed) claim that language functions are more strongly lateralized (i.e. concentrated in a single hemisphere, typically the left one) in male brains than in female ones, along with the (even more disputed) claim that the corpus callosum, a structure which connects the two hemispheres, is larger in female brains than male ones. This is supposed to explain why females have more advanced verbal skills than males. (Or as the Peases prefer to put it, with impeccable scientific rigour, why ‘men aren’t much good at talking’.)

But I said ‘at a guess’ because the Peases’ garbled rendition of whatever research findings they might be alluding to bears little resemblance to any kind of science. Taken literally, the statements I’ve quoted are so ludicrous, they make me laugh every time I read them—until I remember that there are US states where this kind of weapons-grade bollocks has provided a rationale for teaching boys and girls separately, using methods that supposedly suit their brains (like having girls share their feelings about the laws of physics, and not expecting boys to read much literature). In Britain, too, I’ve met school teachers who’ve encountered a less extreme version of the same ideas in professional development courses—and who often didn’t realize there was anything scientifically questionable about them, since they’re always presented as the real deal.

But researchers are now challenging not only the nonsense peddled by popular writers like the Peases, but the scientific consensus it is (however loosely) based on. At the end of last month, the mainstream media were full of headlines like ‘Scans prove there’s no such thing as a “male” or “female” brain’ and ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? New brain study says not’.

What occasioned these headlines was a research study which looked at a large number of structural features on MRI scans of over 1400 people’s brains, and found that only a small minority of those brains displayed consistently ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics. The majority were a mixture: they showed some of the characteristics previous research has associated more with male than female subjects, and some of the characteristics that previous research has associated more with female than male subjects. The conclusion the researchers drew was that if you examine the brain as a whole, there aren’t two distinct types that could sensibly be described as ‘male’ and ‘female’.

If this eventually becomes the consensus among scientists, what will become of the people who have made lucrative careers out of describing brains as ‘male’ and ‘female’? Will they feel obliged to admit they got it wrong, and either change their approach or shut up shop?

Maybe they should, but I very much doubt they will, because this is not the kind of popular science that’s written for laypeople with an interest in science. As the article quoted earlier observes, it’s more like self-help in a lab coat. Rather than starting from current debates in neuroscience, writers begin with familiar gender stereotypes (things like ‘men don’t listen’ and ‘women talk all the time’), and then cherry-pick a few studies whose results appear to support the argument they want to make (that these behaviours are ‘hard-wired’ in the brain).

It’s often assumed that the reason writers do this is because they are hacks who just don’t understand the science. But while some, like the Peases, may be genuinely clueless, many if not most of the books in my collection were written by people who have no such excuse. The Female Brain, for instance, is the work of a practising neuropsychiatrist, who presumably knows her way around an MRI scan.

But what these writers also know is their audience. Readers who buy books with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps are not looking for a nuanced, scientific discussion of sex and gender. They’re looking for a story that confirms their beliefs about how men and women are different, and reassures them that men and women will always be different no matter how much feminists shout and scream. It’s not about the science, it’s about the politics.

At the moment, the story these readers find most compelling comes from neuroscience, but in the past many other scientific stories were pressed into service to explain why men and women were both different and unequal. Genetics, evolutionary science, neurology, endocrinology and psychoanalysis have all had their moments—and let’s not forget gynaecology, whose practitioners warned women in the 19th century that stressful activities like higher education and public speaking would cause their reproductive organs to shrivel.

Every generation of scientific sexists disclaims the errors and biases of its predecessors and assures us that today’s science is different. Yet in one fundamental respect it isn’t different at all: contemporary scientists may be offering a new explanation for sex-differences, but the differences they’re trying to explain are the same old collection of stereotypes and myths. Occasionally one of these does fade into obsolescence (no one today suggests that education shrivels the ovaries); but many are in the category of ‘zombie facts’ which have been around forever (sometimes they’re older than science itself), have never been supported by good evidence, and still refuse to die.

The belief that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex is a case in point. Every time I encounter yet another discussion of what neuroscience might have to tell us about this (and such discussions appear in the scholarly literature as well as the popular bollocks), I feel as if I’m reading an account of how unicorns evolved. How compelling I find the explanation is beside the point: there are no unicorns, and women don’t talk more than men.

That’s why I’m cautious about hailing the ‘no such thing as a male/female brain’ study as a great leap forward, politically as well as scientifically. I do think the findings of the study are interesting, and I’m glad to see research evidence casting doubt on the idea of brain-sex. But I don’t think that gets to the root of the problem. The beliefs that are most damaging to women are not beliefs about the brain as such, they’re beliefs about sex-specific abilities and behaviour (like ‘women are no good at maths’ or ‘men can’t express their feelings’) which at the moment are often justified by appealing to supposed facts about the brain. Those beliefs may be reinforced by ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’, but they existed long before those explanations became available, and they could survive if those explanations were discredited.

So, yes, it’s important for feminists to challenge neurosexism. But if we only focus on what’s wrong with the story it tells about the brain, we’re in danger of conceding too much to the story it presupposes about the way men and women think, feel and behave. Without that other story, the brain story would cease to serve any purpose. Because the core of neurosexism isn’t the neuro, it’s the sexism.

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