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Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism

What are little boys made of?
“Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of!”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!”

This popular kids nursery-rhyme, and the popular notion that men and women are different species from entirely different worlds, may have to be re-written in the light of recent findings.

Several books recently have taken a scalpel to ‘neurosexism’, or rather the neuroscience of ‘innate’ and ‘inborn’ – or ‘hardwired’– differences between men and women. It seems that most of what we have been told about ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains over the last few decades is, to use a highly technical term, bollocks.

It turns out there is little or no sound scientific evidence for the sweeping claims that have been made about sexed brains – even if they make for easy headlines for copy-editors and provide endless material for lazy stand-up comics. In fact, the very notion of a ‘male brain’ and a ‘female brain’ is misleading. Shockingly, it turns out that the human race, in all its billions and billions, doesn’t actually resolve itself into just two kinds of people. One made of snips and snails and the other made of sugar and spice. One from Mars, the other from Venus.

Yes, there are some differences between adult male and female brains, but these are not, it seems, so much inborn in the way we think of anatomical sexual difference as being inborn – there’s little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Instead they’re the result of our highly ‘plastic’ brains adapting to the culture and expectations they are born into. Learning the syntax of sex and gender.

Having read one of the most publicised books, Dr Lise Eliot’s (ironically titled) Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I can report I thoroughly enjoyed the way she methodically dices and slices the mounds and mounds of dodgy neuroscience papers that have gone before her, like some kind of white-coated Ellen Ripley figure. It’s always a thrill to see scientific scepticism in action – especially in a particularly egotistical field such as neuroscience that seemingly just can’t resist making several whopping great tendentious claims before lunchtime. Neuroscientists sometimes come across like a real-life Pinky and The Brain, but more ridiculous.

Eliot’s argument is that small physical and temperamental differences between the sexes at birth are exaggerated by cultural attitudes – and by bad science based on cultural attitudes, providing a depressing feedback loop. She certainly makes a forceful case for it, showing how so much of the data in this area has been cherry-picked or unreasonably extrapolated from studies on rats. Essentially, for the vast majority of children, how they are raised and educated and the cultural expectations they are born into are of much greater importance for their psychological development than the amount of testosterone they were or were not exposed to in the womb.

But perhaps what is most interesting is that while she might be characterised by some (though not as far as I’m aware by herself) as a ‘feminist scientist’, if only because she’s female and a scientist and taking on gender stereotyping, she’s not so much riding to the rescue here of girls, as boys.

The biggest losers as a result of latter-day ‘neurosexism’ aren’t the girls who are discouraged from being physically adventurous by their over-protective mothers, or tacitly persuaded that maths isn’t for them, but the boys who are talked to less than girls, left on their own longer and not expected to be interested in books. We can glean an idea of who is really losing out in the figures which show that boys are falling further and further behind girls at every level of education. It’s not so much that education has been ‘feminised’ as some would have it, it’s that education has been branded ‘not for boys’ by bad science and even worse popularisations of it.

The notion/prejudice that girls are ‘hardwired’ for communication and boys’ for aggression is doubtless very unfair indeed to girls – but it’s downright abusive for boys. Our assumptions that boys as a ‘species’ are ‘naturally’ much less empathetic than girls, less social, less literate, less sensitive – less ‘human’ in other words – are a self-fulfilling prophecy/nightmare.  Snips and snails…. Boys are, in effect, being ‘hardwired’ into failure by adult prejudice – and scientific hogwash.

Neuroscience has ended up saying some very strange, very damaging things about boys. Leading neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he’s the cousin of the other one) actually argues that autism is ‘an extreme form of maleness’, caused by exposure to high levels of prenatal testosterone. Put another way, he’s in effect arguing that ‘normal’ maleness is a mild form of autism (rather like most of the novels of Nick Hornby). Dr Eliot does a particularly nifty job of dispatching this argument, concluding that far from being some kind of excess of maleness, we still just don’t know what causes autism.

But my favourite part of the book was this anecdote, used to illustrate how five-year-olds tend to define and enforce gender in a manner entirely consistent with the ‘What Are Little Boys Made Of?’ nursery rhyme:

Psychologist Sandra Bem cites a perfect example of such gender-defining stereotypes in the experience of her own son, Jeremy. She and her husband had gone to great lengths to raise their two children in a gender-neutral way, so when Jeremy announced one day that he wanted to wear hair slides to nursery school, she simply put them in his hair and let him go.  Expecting him to be teased, she was surprised that he said nothing about it when he came home that day. Later, however, she learned from his teacher that Jeremy had indeed been hounded by on boy, who kept asserting that Jeremy must be a girl “because only girls wear hair slides.”

“No,” Professor Bem’s well-taught son had countered, going on to insist that he was indeed a boy because he had “ a penis and testicles.”  To prove the point, Jeremy even pulled down his trousers.

But the other boy was not persuaded and replied: “Everyone has a penis; only girls wear hair slides.”

Given what Dr Eliot reports here about many of her colleague’s work, it’s difficult not to conclude that the ‘only girls wear hair slides’ bossy little boy is going to grow up to be a neuroscientist.

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24 thoughts on “Sexing the Brain: Neuroscience vs. Neurosexism”

  1. I didn’t find puberty terrifying. I thought it would be worse, but I was lucky.

    If I’d identified as male, I’d been unlucky I guess. Most men I know want more visible “manly” cues than what I got. Most men (say, over 90%) got more visible ones, too.

    I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t male, at 8. I looked up reincarnation, and when Catholic (I was raised Catholic) teachings were against it, I renounced religion altogether. Thankfully, my parents (and the whole province) was throwing Christian religion out the window when I was growing up, for different reasons (oppressive church in the ’50s, directing politics). Read up about Quebec province’s French-speaking people and their relation to Christianity. Only 50+ people even frequent church now, in 2 generations, there won’t be anyone.

    I was set in reincarnating as female, because I thought transition was impossible (I had not heard about it ever). At 8, I wanted to die to finally be able to live as myself.

    At 16, when my T levels soared, giving me huge acne for 8 years long (until I stopped T, or it would have been lifelong I bet) – I figured that testosterone was poisonous. A less wishful thinking thing. It was something I could know. Something somewhat tangible. It wasn’t the acne, it was how miserable it made me feel…over 8 years.

    Feeling your genitals are wrong can be explained as fantasy. Feeling your actual hormonal flow is wrong, can’t be explained away.

    I still only learned transition existed at 22, in early 2005. I looked up all there was to look up about trans stuff. Thousands of hours scouring the internet. I found a trans-friendly doctor from someone I met online who lived nearby. I went, got my hormones, and finally, two decades of pent up feelings got released.

    Once I transitioned socially, my true persona was able to be there more of the time, and now, almost all the time…except when confronting hate. Before transition, well, it wasn’t safe at all for my true persona to be out.

  2. The gatekeepers she mentions encountering, are getting rarer and rarer. They still exist, sometimes in proeminent positions – like the CAMH in Ontario. They just have much less power than in decades past – where it was the ONLY way to get treatment.

    Trans-friendly shrinks are hard to find. I myself have found none. One willing to write me a diagnosis, but not friendly. Yet she didn’t force me into a Barbie doll stereotype to approve me either.

    I presented the shrink with the fait accompli, 2 years after starting hormones – because I wanted to switch to an endocrinologist and have my legal name change – and that required a GID diagnosis by a shrink.

    I made it clear I was seeing her for that, nothing else. It lasted 4 months (once per month). Now my name’s legally changed, and I’ve been with my endo for 3 years. I don’t intend to see shrinks any time soon, even if I do have issues (childhood ones).

  3. Btw, I transitioned a few months before I was 24, both socially and hormonally (at the same time). Now I’ll be 29 in a few months.

    The main effect T had on my body was giving me loads of acne, and making my skin somewhat more oily (goes well with acne, doesn’t it?). Not tall, not large, not muscled, not hairy, no deep voice. And I was still suicidally depressed.

    I only went better after taking hormones for a few months (time for it to clear out the old system).

    This is something my body can tell me, and that only gets known when it’s wrong for you.

    It’s the ultimate trans screening tool: if hormones don’t make you feel waaaayyyyy better psychologically, well, it’s not for you.

  4. “I don’t like the look of this research as I think it is an attempt to fix people in a set gender id very early in life.”

    Isn’t that the present situation? With most parents, and the state, trying to “fix people very early in life” (like, at birth)?

    It’s a sex id anyway, not a gender id. Has nothing to do with roles.

    That part of the brain is the one telling me that testosterone is poisonous, it’s not telling me I like dresses or anything.

    Even in a post-patriarchal world where hierarchies don’t exist at all, hormones would still course through my veins, and I’d still feel T is poison.

    I’ve had zero point zero levels of free T for over 3 years (hormones for almost 5). No problem, physically or mentally, with this. I got libido (well some) and my well-being is pretty good.

    Can you believe I had no libido at all before I blocked T? I wasn’t attracted to anyone sexually. And I had medium T levels for an adult male.

    Baron-Cohen isn’t studying that part of the brain though. He’s studying the plastic ones.

    The one telling me T is poison is fixed at birth (and unchangeable post-natally), even if it takes it’s shape only in adulthood. I knew at 16 that it was poison (late puberty). I knew at 8 something was wrong with my genitals. At 16, I just became super-depressed instead of somewhat depressed, and that, despite only having mild physical effects with T (I wasn’t depressed about looking more masculine itself…since I didn’t).

  5. What’s funny is that, according to Simon Baron-Cohen, I have a pretty male brain. I got asperger on top, so peg me as “extremely male” according to him.

    Yet, I transitioned and live as female. Not too feminine, but enough to not pass as butch or androgyne. Has more to do with my body language I take (something outside my control).

    This doesn’t disprove that brains are sexed…but it disproves his own theory that the parts he thinks are different are so by sex (and not say, interests and abilities, which are classified stereotypically).

    The BSTc and other small regions prove 100% dysmorphic between the sexes, and place transsexual people squarely on the side of the sex they identify as. The seat of identity re sex, has few characteristics that matter, save a preference for a certain body configuration and hormonal make-up. If it matters re abilities, it’s very marginally and not universal.

    I’m a hardcore gamer (plays JRPGs mainly) and am at ease with programmation and “how stuff works”. I analyze most everything using logic first and foremost.

    Yet I still identify and live as female, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

  6. While Lise Elliot’s viewpoint is possibly ideologically motivated what she shows up very well, along with several other recent books by scientists (all female, it has to be said), is that the prevailing viewpoint of neuroscience when it comes to gender hasn’t been based on serious science but instead on just-so stories and outright prejudice.

    I think this is a watershed moment – one that should remind us that phrenology was once as popular and as respectable as neuroscience.

  7. Lise Elliots contention that gender differences are greater in adult brains than in children flies in the face of other research I’ve heard of claiming the brain becomes more androgynous with age.

    More generally, for every popular book claiming little or no innate differences between the sexes, I can find another equally recent book by a neuroscientist (notably, Louann Brizendine’s “The Male Brain” and “The Female Brain”) claiming hyper-importance of innate differences.

    Which, if either side, to believe, if you’re not a specialist in neuropsychology? Unfortunately, most people seem to decide on the basis a priori sexual/political ideology, which is definitely not the best way to evaluate evidence.

  8. They make pink camouflage . . . I think I’m jealous of ‘Pink Boy’. I wanted to wear tiaras and dress like a princess when I was his age, but guess what? I came from a family of 5 kids, and my mom couldn’t afford to indulge all our little fantasies. So I had to wait until I grew up, moved out of the house, and got a job to spoil myself. I love pink. Both my grandfather (on my mom’s side), and my grandmother (on my father’s side), had ‘Pink Rooms’ in their house – so that kept the dream alive.

    I think Pink Boy lives in Berkeley California, or the Bay Area, which is where I grew up. Basically, he is in ‘tolerance and self-indulgence central’. A friend of mine (born same day and year as me), who grew up in Berkeley, told me he thought he was living ‘in the center of the universe.’

    As I said, my family was not frivolous, but I did have a sense of the surrounding environment, and the Bay Area at that time was an amazing place (still is).

    As for Breast Cancer Awareness, I read that for all the pink stuff and money spent and raised, no significant impact in the fight against Breast Cancer has been made. Still, I’m all for any excuse to exploit and utilize one of my favorite colors, while raising ‘awareness’ for a frightful disease.

    I wouldn’t have bought Pink Boy a tiara, or blogged about him — but I might have bought him a pony . . . and if he wanted to compete for the title of Rodeo Queen, so be it.

  9. Years ago the rodeo community started the “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” campaign to support the fight against Breast Cancer. Most rodeos now have a day devoted to the cause and all the contestants wear pink. Of course, cowboys have always been fashion conscious, obsessed with their gear — its form, function, and meaning — and very feminized in their dress, so naturally they have embraced the hue. Many wear pink routinely now. At the Roy Rogers auction a few months ago I fell in love with a pink Nudie Shirt (it was paired with turquoise pants) embroidered with a papoose on the back. It was Roy’s of course (as opposed to Dale’s), and made in the 1950’s. Kids are going to find reasons to pick on other kids regardless. I’m not at all for bullying, it is a terrible thing, but people need to appreciate that it is not something that just happens to people who choose to dress and date to their liking, perhaps standing out in the crowd. Pink boy is just a kid. I liked purple and orange at that age, a phase I eventually grew out of, for better or worse. One thing I can tell you, Pink Boy is REALLY going to be embarrassed when he discovers his Mom’s blog.

  10. Goodness! Psychoanalysis is still a respected field? I have read about Freud among others and their lovely “penis envy”. i am still convinced Freud was suffering from a severe case of “vagina envy” :P.

  11. I absolutely love this post as since I was about six I have wanted to be (yes) a neuroscientist. But, I have been persuaded other wise by the disgusting attitudes of quiet a few people in that field that have told me that generally I am disordered because I am not interested in fighting, or playing sports, and I am gay and quiet camp (I can’t tell whether I am camp or not). It is such a fascinating field, its such a shame its full of idiots.

  12. I think “Mary, Mary quite contrary” sealed my fate. The girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead was popular too. I’ve been thinking about “Citizen Kane” recently, and “rosebud” — what is that one thing from your childhood that motivates you, or is symbolic of your wants and desires, perhaps lost?

  13. Just today I was telling (yet again) the story about how my dad always drank his coffee out of a proper cup and saucer, and my mom always used a mug. He was sentimental, and she could be quite cold, and analytical. My parents were hetero (obviously — they had five kids) but they did not adhere to clear gender roles even in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when roles were pretty severe. Viva la difference!

    I think the real area of psychoanalysis and neuroscience that should be explored is the asexual personality.

    Some people are perfectly happy living alone, and have no need for companionship or even the occasional fling with members of either sex. I think I just outed myself . . . is it the last taboo?

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