Pseudoscience: Brain Gender

Ah, how naturally the stereotypes fit into place.

The following is a direct quote from the first chapter of Brizendine’s book “The Female Brain“:

“Males’ and females’ brains are different by nature. Think about this. What if the communication center is bigger in one brain than in the other? What if the emotional memory center is bigger in one than in the other? What if one brain develops a greater ability to read cues in people than does the other? In this case, you would have a person whose reality dictated that communication, connection, emotional sensitivity, and responsiveness were the primary values. This person would prize these qualities above all others and be baffled by a person with a brain that didn’t grasp the importance of these qualities. In essence, you would have someone with a female brain.”

The sheer pretense of her rationale and ridiculousness of her conclusion in the final sentence almost tangibly blows my hair back like a cacophonous explosion of nonsense—I don’t even know where to begin. Before even entering into the serious implications about gender and the brain that she throws about so easily, the terms “communication center” and “emotional memory center” jump right out at you. It’s as if when doctors first removed the top of the skull to observe the tissues of the brain there were bold, highlighted labels on each section stating its exclusive and autonomous function. They merely had to sketch a diagram and jot down nature’s labeling scheme: the lump over there had “Communication Center” written across it, the fold over here had “Center for Humor and Sarcasm,” and the notch at the back said plainly “Emotional Memory Center.” No. Last time I checked, human communication was a little bit more complicated than a hormone or a region of neurons. Communication, emotion, and memory are not simple computational functions that occupy a little niche of the brain like the distributor occupies a little niche of an automobile. Scientists do not even purport to understand the scope of how communication and emotion are handled by the brain, let alone which specific regions handle what. It has been shown that the logistics of language syntax seem to be partly associated with certain areas in the brain, but that says nothing as to how one produces intelligent sentences. There’s a big difference between what enables you to put words in the proper grammatical order and what enables you to express your ideas.

Further venturing into the mine field of Brizendine’s quote calls into question the size of these apparent “centers” for brain functioning. There simply isn’t any substantive evidence that whether the regions she might be referring to are larger or more pronounced as a trend in one sex or the other has anything to do with greater ability. Also, she implies quite strongly that such differences (if they did exist) are the result of evolution as opposed to developmental changes. Again, there’s no scientific data to support the claim that females evolved to be more social than men. She also states that the female brain has a greater ability to read cues in people, but it has been shown that such perceptive abilities vary far more greatly within a gender than across genders. Additionally, what sort of “cues” are being referred to and how inherently gender-biased are the tests that are being done? What men look for in each other and what women look for in each other is likely have some degree of difference. If the types of “cues” were changed, men might appear much more observant than women. It’s all relative.

You have to understand that it doesn’t necessarily do any good at all to observe sex-related differences in the functioning of adult brains. We know that everyone assumes there are some tendencies that seem to better characterize women (empathizers, they say) and some traits that better characterize men (systemizers, they say). If we see some trace of these generalizations in the laboratory, it doesn’t mean anything. All that was shown was that, yes, this female subject appears to think differently than this male subject does, and, yes, it seems to partially agree with gender stereotypes. Unless their personalities were exactly identical, we already knew that! So, what does such a study NOT tell us anything about or provide any evidence whatsoever for? It does not show that the female brain is designed differently than the male. It does not show that the brain evolved to have gender specific differences. It does not show that a female is predisposed to think differently than a male. It does not show that one sex inherently possesses a greater affinity for anything than the other. It does not give any reason to believe that a female is born to be mentally distinguishable from a male. In other words, it offers no evidence that any and all gender differences are not the result of developmental differences—basically that girls are conditioned to be girls and boys are conditioned to be boys; the brain may well be genderless until conditioning.

Finally, it is inherently wrong to connect observed mental-emotional “qualities” with brain sex. They vary far more on an individual basis, to the point that comparisons between sexes become very difficult. It is not valid, scientifically or ethically, to assume that society’s stereotypical sense of gender is rooted in nature, evolution, and DNA. Rather than shackle a human being in pseudoscientific gender roles, we should focus on the untapped potential for the human mind to be anything it chooses.

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7 Responses to Pseudoscience: Brain Gender

  1. Pingback: Pseudoscience: Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, Misattribution, Predisposition. | Blakerivers's Blog

  2. towardabetterworld says:

    So, here too, I agree that the author’s claims are pseudoscientific. But I disagree with

    “It is not valid, scientifically or ethically, to assume that society’s stereotypical sense of gender is rooted in nature, evolution, and DNA…we should focus on the untapped potential for the human mind to be anything it chooses.”

    There’s substantial evidence that many human differences (e.g. differences in height) are genetic in origin. This being the case, I think that unless one has specific evidence to the contrary, when one encounters a difference between two people (or two groups of people, e.g. the two sexes) one should accept a strong (~50%) possibility that the difference is genetic in origin.

    Maybe what you object to about this sort of thinking is that we can influence environment but not genes, and you feel that we should focus on what we can change rather than what we can’t change. The problem is that adopting the attitude that anything is changeable can lead one to misprioritize one’s efforts.

    For example, there are lots of poor people in the developing world who die of tuberculosis and lots of poor kids in America who do badly in school. There’s evidence that it’s easy to save somebody in the developing world from dying of tuberculosis http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/stop-TB whereas there’s evidence that it’s hard to help a poor kid in America do better in school http://www.givewell.org/united-states/education/schools-are-not-the-key . This points toward it being a good idea to prioritize saving poor people in the developing world from dying of tuberculosis over helping poor people in America do better in school. If one adopts the attitude that all differences are changeable then one misses the opportunity to see one’s efforts go much further than they otherwise would.

    [Note: I don't have a position on whether the difficulty of giving poor kids a better education is environmental or genetic in origin - it could be either - I was just giving an example of how acknowledging that some things may be unalterable can help one do more than one otherwise would be able to.]

    I’ll remark that if a difference does appear to be genetic in origin then we don’t have to throw our hands and give up – we can look into the possibility of genetic engineering. If there are genetic reasons why some people exhibit sexually infidelity more often than others and parents want their children to be sexually faithful when they grow up, then we may one day be able to isolate genes conducive to sexual fidelity and splice them into developing fetuses routinely resulting in a better society for everyone. This sort of thing is why I’m seriously interested in promoting positive technological developments. (Of course some care has to be taken when one does genetic engineering – it’s not a good idea to do it on a large scale without some thought and experimentation, but I do see it as a promising avenue for future development.)

    • blakerivers says:

      Hey Jonah,
      Everything you said is true, and I would say that “some care has to be taken” is an understatement. However, in responding to what you specifically disagree with (“it is not valid…to assume that …”) I must reassert that there is not enough reason to believe in a genetic explanation to warrant an assumption. Sure, it is a definite possibility, but to assume its truth is not valid. Also, it depends on what exactly we’re talking about, but a 50% probability of genetic origin is far higher than I wound generally grant. Considering all the other factors that could lead to the observed difference, allotting 50% likelihood to genetics seems way overblown to me. But that’s just my perspective.

      • towardabetterworld says:

        To clarify, when I referred to 50% probability of an difference being genetic in origin I mean a 50% probability that genes are the “ultimate cause” rather than the “proximate cause.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proximate_and_ultimate_causation

        See my comment on make up application ability under your post “Pseudoscience: Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, Misattribution, Predisposition.” – I agree that it’s very unlikely that genetic differences are the “proximate cause” for women being better than men at applying makeup, but I would say that genetic differences are the “ultimate cause.”

        Of course, even speaking of “proximate” vs. “ultimate” causes is just a rough manner of speaking – the causal web is complicated and a statement of the form “X causes Y” is strictly speaking often ill defined. I guess what I mean is that what I say in the above paragraph can be a useful approximation (just as Newton’s law of gravitation can be a useful approximation to general relativity – Newton’s law of gravitation can be _very wrong_ depending on the context, but it’s good enough to be useful for many purposes).

      • blakerivers says:

        Thanks, I understand what you mean. Your explanations and clarifications I fully endorse!

  3. blakerivers says:

    So as not to send a falsely hateful impression, please note that I do not think that “The Female Brain” is a bad book. To the contrary, I think it can be helpful for many in coming to a better understanding and acceptance of certain gender idiosyncrasies. But there are many claims within the book that I take issue with, not the least of which being the view that women and men are inherently and invariably different in patterned psychological ways due to biology.

  4. blakerivers says:

    I recently found a nice article called Female/Male Brain? by Cat F on thefbomb.org in which issues of determining masculinity or femininity as how they relate to the brain are examined. Humorously, the author used a picture very similar to the one I chose even though I didn’t find that article until months later.

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