Social Science

Taking out the ‘neurotrash’ of sexist neuroscience

That stuff you’ve read about “the female brain”? These neuroscientists say it’s garbage

October 8, 2019
Multiple x-ray scans of a brain and skull
The brains of men and women may not be so different after all. [Credit: Aron Balogh from Free Images | CC]

“I wanted to call my book Fifty Shades of Grey Matter,” says British neuroscientist Gina Rippon, “but my publishers didn’t think that was serious enough.” 

She grins and winks at her appreciative audience, but Rippon is deadly serious in scorning what she calls “neurotrash”: dubious research — often translated into popular books — that prods and pokes at the human brain to “hunt the differences” between men and women. In her latest book, Gender and Our Brains (released in the UK as The Gendered Brain), Rippon is unambiguous in asserting that there are no significant biological differences between the brains of men and women. Though there are hundreds of papers eager to point out differences, she says there are really no consistent findings. 

A professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, England, Rippon spoke at a recent panel discussion at Barnard College in New York City. She was joined on stage by two other neuroscientists, Daphna Joel of Tel Aviv University and Giordana Grossi of the State University of New York at New Paltz. Both share Rippon’s frustration at the widespread public misunderstandings about gender and the brain.

“Society needs to move beyond the binary,” said Joel, adding that the only thing sex can really dictate is your physical genitalia, and sometimes not even that. An exasperated Grossi asserted that cognitive differences between boys and girls —  as detected in school math tests, for example —  are the result of self-adjusting feedback loops that are socialized into us from birth but not actually based on biology. 

Rippon argues the only reason researchers find cognitive differences between men and women is because they are purposefully hunting for those differences. They set up experiments to determine sex-based distinction that ignore how the social implications of gender roles can change a person’s thinking. An fMRI study may find that women have more active emotional centers than men, but that may be because women are socialized to be emotionally attuned to their surroundings in ways men are not.

“If your studies are designed with a faulty metric,” Rippon says, “it’s not surprising that you’ll find a difference based on that metric.” 

Her arguments were popular at the Barnard discussion, where about 90% of the audience were women. Each quip was met with full-bodied laughter and vigorous nods of approval. But not everyone in the neuroscience community buys into Rippon’s reasoning. 

In a harsh review of her book in Quillette, an online publication, neuroscientist Larry Cahill of the University of California at Irvine insists that Rippon is in “denial of evolution.” He says sex-difference is an important factor in medicine, considering that men and women respond differently to some medical treatments. He believes Rippon is trying to make men and women “the same” in a reach for equality, a stance that he argues will encourage researchers to continue leaving women out of clinical discussions, to the detriment of the women Rippon presumes to champion. 

Rippon counters that her point is not to deny sex differences entirely — she is not claiming that all brains are identical. There are certainly cases where male and female brains diverge, she says, especially regarding sexual behavior. What she does believe, however, is that brains are diverse, and drawing conclusions about how men and women must think based on a gendered binary is neither helpful nor accurate, and is even harmful. Joel calls it the “gender mosaic,”  which is also the name of her book,  the idea that each brain is a collage of “typically-more-male” and “typically-more-female” traits. 

Only in a society free of gender-based expectations would we be able to determine whether men and women truly differ in cognition, Joel concludes. And though we are a long way from that reality, we can be sure that there — free of gendered pressures — we would simply care less. 


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