Boy and Girl Brains?
This past weekend, I had the pleasure to meet two teen girls adopted from China by friends of mine. The girls are poised between childhood and adulthood where the big questions—who am I? What am I going to make of my life?—are looming. During a conversation, someone mentioned something about “girl brains.” The phrase went by quickly, and I almost didn’t notice it. Then one of the girls asked directly: “Are the differences between the sexes biological or cultural?”
After our conversation, I began to wonder: how does this popular notion that women and men have different brains affect these girls’ ambitions, hopes, and dreams? Despite all of the celebration of how great the female brain is—how it will be much more useful in the world of the future—it seemed that she had already begun to wonder if she had gotten the lesser version. She’s smart: she’s perfectly capable of deducing that there is a connection between the gap between men and women in positions of leadership and the much-touted difference between male and female brains. This gap is certainly something that we all have to grapple with. But it’s not simply caused by innate brain differences between women and men. In fact, the whole notion of innate, genetically programmed, immutable, hard-wired brain differences between males and females is suspect–at least to the degree that is presented in popular media.
Oh, yes, I know. At this point, it’s widely understood that contemporary neuroscience has proven the existence of hard-wired differences between females and males that directly relate to the gender differences we see in the world. We’ve got Louann Brizendine writing The Female Brain (2006) and, more recently, The Male Brain (2010). Simon Baron Cohen’s The Essential Difference (2003) argues that autism is an effect of the “extreme male brain.” Or even books like Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget (2005) by Marianne Legato. Not to mention the classic Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. (And then there are all those hormones!) Most aware adults these days have come to accept the fact that these differences are a fact, even if we might find it a bit troubling. It all lines up: the world is as it is, neurology has proven that women and men have dramatically different brains, and every new discovery in evolutionary psychology shows us why these differences were advantageous to the evolution of the species.
We roll our eyes when we hear that in the nineteenth century earnest doctors (all men) presented evidence that thinking or intellectual stimulation caused the womb to wither. How archaic! We smile knowingly when we are told that it was believed that because women’s skulls were smaller, hips broader, etc. etc. that meant that women should stay at home and raise children. While it is easy for us to fall into grumbling ruminations about oppression, it’s far more interesting to take a wide-angle view. In the modern era’s split between the public world (the economy, politics, science, academia, law) and the private world (the home), society became gendered. Women were mistresses of the domestic sphere and men, well, masters of the universe.
Yet, as the demands of work became less physical through the invention of machinery, the justification that women, the weaker sex, couldn’t handle work demands and therefore should stay at home and not enter the economy needed new evidence. The home was essential to the economy—goods created through new technologies needed an outlet: voila, woman the consumer. In light of this (bear in mind that I’m picking up just a few threads in a very complex tapestry), it made a certain kind of sense to wonder about innate differences between women and men that would support the entire way that society was structured at the very point that the division between the public and private spheres seemed less inevitable. (Working class and poor women and children were earning wages through factory work.) Notably, this is when the notion that women were morally and spiritually superior to men became part of the cultural fabric. Why superior? Because women’s delicate, refined nature made them incapable of engaging in the dirt of public life. (An odd form of superiority that keeps one on the sidelines…)
The prevalence of the boy and girl brain idea makes me wonder if we are not so different from our nineteenth-century forebears. Why? Because several important books have been written that show how flimsy the evidence is behind these claims of hard-wired brain differences related to cultural differences. Last year, in Pink Brain, Blue Brain Lise Eliot cautions us not to look for a direct correlation between behavior and brain. In an article in Scientific American, she gave an interesting example. The size of the straight gyrus (SG) in the frontal cortex of the brain correlates with higher scores on a common test of interpersonal awareness. One study showed that the 30 women in the study (compared with 30 men) had larger SG areas. But when the researchers went back to look at the SG in children, their results were backwards—boys tended to have larger SGs. The researchers then gave all of their subjects a test of masculine or feminine personality, which is when their results began to make sense. Higher scores on “femininity” were correlated with a larger SG—not simply whether one is in a female body. Eliot acknowledges that differences exist between male and female brains, but we actually don’t know what they mean. And they are not, as she shows, related directly to all of the ways that we see men and women acting differently.
But Eliot’s book is only one of many that are puncturing holes in our sweeping assumptions that we are hard-wired to be different. You might want to check out Rebecca Jordan-Young’s acclaimed Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference, published last year. Or look into the work of Cordelia Fine. Fine’s research is impeccable and her wit is sharp. She just published Delusions of Gender last year. She gave a brief overview of her message at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas held at the Syndey Opera House in Australia last year. Here’s the video:
I would imagine that most of us are far less familiar with the books that oppose the notion of hard-wired differences than we are with the books that champion that notion. It’s not simply that the books against the idea are newer—they have received far less attention. Why? I would suggest that the idea of hard-wired differences is deeply congruent with what we want to believe.
Why, particularly in our egalitarian postmodern times, would we want to see gender difference as so entrenched? I’ve given a lot of thought to this question, and while my top-line answer may be simplistic, I think it gets at something important. In the aftermath of the 1960s and 70s, when the revolution that was going to change everything didn’t happen quite as we imagined it, we began to confront the intractability of self and systems. Change, deep change, is really difficult on any level. As we grew up, moved into self-help and psychotherapy, the very same impulses, fears, and desires that created a world in which women stayed home and men ruled public life kept on operating in us. Toss in the fact that really satisfying solutions to women’s work/family dilemma don’t exist as a matter of public policy and social habit and, well, you have the status quo. The doors of opportunity are open and, much to the befuddlement and concern of all, women don’t seem to be walking through, sticking with it, and becoming leaders in public spaces to the degree that you think should be happening. So, adopting the view that the differences between us are hard-wired becomes very useful. (And it makes me wonder about the intent behind the proliferation of new forms of women’s spirituality that claim women’s inherent moral and relational superiority… Could it be something like: if we women cannot have a truly equal say in how the world works and what matters in our culture in bigger ways, then give me back my pedestal?)
This is an enormously complex issue that goes to the irreducible heart of the relationship between brain, consciousness, and culture. We are the embodiment of and share in deep cultural agreements about who we are supposed to be and what is real. To change the way women and men are, would call on us to develop new shared agreements—norms and values—to undergird a new culture with new expectations for women and men. The brain is not fixed; it’s remarkably plastic—able to change throughout the lifespan. There is so much more possible for all of us. An example from a case study that we read about in a course on developmental neuropsychology illustrates this. I don’t remember the girl’s name—she was Irish—but in our class she was dubbed “the girl with the orange rind brain.” In infancy, she had an unusual case of hydrocephalus—commonly “water on the brain”—that crushed the gray matter of her brain against the inside of her skull so that it formed something like a thin rind around a large watery center. Most of what was in her head was not neurons or brain cells, but fluid—cerebrospinal fluid. According to medical science, she should have been severely disabled. But there she was: in college. It was only by a fluke that this was discovered. She appeared and behaved so normally that no one guessed that she, basically, had no brain. (There are other examples of this.)
What do I make of this? Well, not that the brain doesn’t matter, nor that there are no differences between male and female brains, but maybe that the brain isn’t what governs who we are quite in the way that we would like to think. The orange-rind girl was “normal”—expressing the norms and values for a female in her culture—in her consciousness but not normal in terms of her neurology. Maybe matter doesn’t matter in the way we think it does. The deepest ground of our experience is consciousness, and consciousness itself is powerful beyond our imagining. Transforming ourselves at the level of consciousness is a starting point from which we can discover a new set of assumptions about who we are and what is possible. I don’t imagine that we will ever change ourselves or culture unless we work at this level. (And I realize that I am not saying clearly what I mean by this—that would take at least another post!) But until some significant few of us undertake this effort, the very least we can do is hold open the doors of possibility enough that we don’t “fix” our children into believing that who they are is pre-determined by their brain and gender. I’d like for my new teen friends, Olivia and Ana, to feel the pull of that possibility as they move into adulthood, and not limit their horizons because they have “girl brains.”