Saturday, February 21, 2009

Is There an Extreme Female Brain?

That question came up in the comments on this post I wrote in September on Simon Baron-Cohen's Extreme Male Brain theory of autism.

While Baron-Cohen did describe the Type E, or "female," brain in the lengthy paper I discussed in the earlier post, nowhere in that paper did he mention an extreme version of this type analogous to the "extreme male brain" he posits as an explanation of autism.

However, in his book-length treatment of the larger subject of brain sex in general, The Essential Difference (2003 --- brief summary and critique available here), he devotes a whole chapter to the extreme female brain.

Baron-Cohen claims that extreme empathizers have been harder for him to characterize because he hasn't seen any of them in his clinic. He hypothesizes that because it's easier for people who are highly skilled at dealing with people but who are helpless at solving problems and thinking logically to function in society, such people do not generally present their cases for psychologists' perusal.
All scientists know about the extreme female brain is that it is predicted to arise ... Scientists have never got up close to these individuals. It is a bit like positing the existence of a new animal on theoretical grounds, and then setting out to discover if it is really found in nature.
[W]hat would such people look like?

... Their empathizing ability would be average or significantly better than that of other people in the general population, but their systemizing would be impaired. So these would be people who have difficulty understanding math or physics or machines or chemistry, as systems. But they could be extremely accurate at tuning in to others' feelings and thoughts.

Would such a profile carry any necessary disability? Hyperempathizing could be a great asset, and poor systemizing may not be too crippling. It is possible that the extreme female brain is not seen in clinics because it is not maladaptive.

We saw that those with the extreme male brain do experience a disability, but only when the person is expected to be socially able. Remove this expectation, and the person can flourish. Unfortunately, in our society this social expectation is pervasive: at school, in the workplace and in the home. So it is hard to avoid.

But for those with the extreme female brain, the disability might only show up in circumstances where the person is expected to be systematic or technical. The person with the extreme female brain would be system-blind. Fortunately, in our society there is considerable tolerance for such individuals. For example, if you were a child who was systemblind, your teachers might simply allow you to drop mathematics and science at the earliest possible stage, and encourage you to pursue your stronger subjects. If you were a systemblind adult and your car didn't work, you could just call the mechanic (who is likely to be at least a Type S). If your computer needs putting together, and you can't work out which lead goes into which socket, there are phone numbers that you can ring for technical support. And in evolutionary terms, there were likely equivalent people that a systemblind person could turn to for help when that person's home was destroyed in strong winds, or when their spear broke.
Despite the silliness of the idea of Prehistoric Tech Support ("Step One: Does Your Spear Have a Pointy End?"), Baron-Cohen has a good point here: with the increasing complexity of society, technology and daily life, division of labor has proceeded to such an extent that many different categories of people exist whose job it is to make sure other people's gadgets are functioning as they should. The need to repair one's own stuff has gotten less and less --- and rich people have never had to fix their own broken appliances --- and, indeed, is no longer possible for many electronic gadgets. Since these extreme Type E's would be good at navigating complex social networks, they should have no trouble knowing whom to consult about what annoying technological hiccup.

That's about as far as I'm willing to grant that his prediction holds any water, though. I think he dramatically underestimates the degree to which systematic modes of thought are needed in modern life. In one example, he has his hypothetical extreme empathizer dealing with a car that won't start; were I in the room when he was writing that part, I would ask him what business he has supposing that this systemblind person could even drive a car? Driving requires memorization and application of a very specific and complicated set of rules, deriving other vehicles' likely trajectories from those rules, and performing fairly complex feats of spatial reasoning quickly and often. All of these things, you have probably realized, are examples of the "systemizing" cognitive style that these extreme Type E's are supposed to lack.

Later in the chapter, Baron-Cohen considers some of the possible matches for his extreme female brain among existing psychological disorders. He rejects what I had thought to be the obvious choice --- paranoia --- on the grounds that the over-attribution of hostile intentions to others (or, sometimes, to inanimate objects) cannot be hyperempathy, because the paranoid person does not perceive the hostility so much as he or she creates it.
[A]re individuals with these psychiatric conditions (for that is what paranoia and personality disorders are) revealing the extreme female brain?

This cannot be the case. If someone is over-attributing intentions, or has become preoccupied by their own emotions, then by definition they are not exhibiting hyperempathy. Hyperempathy is the ability to ascertain the mental states of others to an unusually accurate and sensitive degree, and it can only occur if one is appropriately tuned in to the other person's feelings. A paranoid person, or someone who is easily inflamed into aggression by suspecting that others are hostile, has a problem. But their problem is not hyperempathy.
So, if the "female" brain is characterized by special attention to, and a high degree of accuracy in parsing, subtle emotional cues in other people's faces, voices or behavior, a person whose wild imaginings led them to infer motivations that weren't there would be as far off from this mark as someone who simply failed to realize that there was any meaning to be read at all.

Ultimately, Baron-Cohen characterizes the extreme female cognitive type as regular people with a particular gift for connecting with people, but who are also technologically clueless:
A second, and to my mind more likely [than his earlier suggestion of a person who believes in telepathy without being delusional or generally harboring wacky ideas], contender for who might have an extreme female brain would be a wonderfully caring person who can rapidly make you feel perfectly understood. For example, an endlessly patient psychotherapist who is excellent at tuning in to your feelings and situation, who not only says she feels a great sadness at your sadness or great pleasure at your pleasure but also actually experiences these emotions as vividly as if your feelings were hers.
He adds that such a prodigy would have to be "technologically disabled" to a corresponding extent to fit his theory, but supposes that such a disability would not stop her from establishing a meaningful career in the caring professions. He says, to my mind unrealistically, that society values empathizers and provides them rewarding niches while compensating for (or ignoring) their weaknesses in systemizing.

I do not believe that society particularly values its caregivers, though. Most of them (in the US) are unpaid, and depend entirely for their survival on the income and health insurance of their working spouses. When caregiving is also a paid job, it is grossly underpaid and often physically and emotionally exhausting. Even within fields that are fairly prestigious, like medicine, those specialties which are dominated by women tend to be the lowest-paid and least-highly regarded. The specialties women choose are often the more nurturing, caring, do-gooder areas like pediatrics or family practice. Conversely, engineers are compensated quite well, and are unique among the professions for earning power immediately following completion of a bachelor's degree.

(I have one final, random thing to add: I know several hyperempathizers. Of the three I can think of, two are male and one is female. One of them sounds a lot like the idea Baron-Cohen rejected in favor of the wholly-assimilated caring professional: when he perceives other people's mental states, he claims to be seeing "auras." I take this to mean that his brain interprets the subtle signals he's perceiving in a visual way --- much like my own thoughts, experienced by a more superstitious person, might be termed "visions." Ironically enough, this man has an autistic son).


Miss Gonzo said...

Oh,can I say something cynical please?
Pure unadulterated psychoporn!
(Not your thoughts, SBJs!)
If men didn't get such a kick out of "explaining" things to the oh-so-inferior women, this could be taken more seriously, but I can almost visualize, how SBJ must have typed this with a red face, and drool running down the corners of his mouth.
(..ahem, that was a bit graphic, sorry!)
On a more serious, (albeit sarcastic) note, there's a type of person, skeptics like to make fun of: they're deeply immersed in woo-woo (creationism, astrology, etc,) absolutely immune to logic, s/he always "feels" and just "knows" there is something, and has an enormous imagination coming up with "explanations". They would qualify for this stereotype.
Yes, stereotype, I wonder why SBJ didn't mention Williams Syndrome, as this is often called the opposite of Asperger's.
In the university of Utah, they even study whether Williams and Asperger's correlate.
I think it's just a coincidence, that there is a syndrome that comes with extreme social skills, but nevertheless, the existence of it shows what gender clich├Ęs SBJ has in his mind, and how he manouvered himself into a dead end street with it.

Catana said...

The more I read of Baron-Cohen's ideas, the more I wonder how he ever got to be an "expert" on anything. He overgeneralizes and fails to define what he means by terms like systematizing, and is just generally becoming a pain in the butt as far as I'm concerned. Failure at math or physics, or anything else, for that matter, doesn't necessarily imply inability to sytematize. In fact, both are generally taught step by step rather than as systems. I'm a total failure at both but I'm an excellent systematizer in areas in which I'm interested, and which actually lend themselves to systematizing. As for his "lack of empathy," so many on the spectrum have discussed this and shown that systematizing and empathy can exist in the same person, that Baron-Cohen's clinging to this stereotype (because what he's done is create new stereotypes) is evidence that he doesn't pay any attention to what real autistics and aspies have to say.

Sorry if this sounds like a rant, but I wish we could just let Baron-Cohen fade away into the obscurity he deserves.

Catana said...

Don't mean to hijack this post, but want to let Miss Gonzo know that the comment form you're using shuts me out completely. I've tried three Mac browsers, and can never get the word verification to load. Would love to comment on your blog, but can't.

Lindsay said...

Miss Gonzo, of course you can say something cynical!

About the type of person you mention (my mom and I call them magical thinkers), he did bring them up but for some reason did not think they fit with the extreme Type E profile. This confused me somewhat, since such people are most definitely "systemblind." (Or maybe not --- they do often come up with very elaborate systems explaining how the world works; it's just that none of them happen to be true!)

Catana, I agree that the things he chooses as examples of systematic thought don't always fit, and that the way math and physics are taught makes systematic thought optional most of the time.

There's also the irony that people with good social skills are often very systematic in their ability to discern and selectively apply different social rules in different contexts.

So no, I don't think the systemizing/empathizing binary is very useful at all either.

Tera said...

Not that I think SBC's "extreme male brain" framework has any merit at all, and this is *way* stereotyped, but like Miss Gonzo, I've always wondered what he thinks of Williams Syndrome when he makes claims about a hyperempathizing, poorly systemetizing brain.

I am a poor systemetizer in a lot of the ways SBC defines "system." While I have trouble with math and some types of science (SBC,dude, there are many different kinds of science--my understanding of, say, dermatology is much better than my understanding of physical science), I also have a lot of trouble understanding the "system(s)" of how places are physically laid out. So I have a lot of trouble going places alone, just because I get lost/don't know where they are.

As stereotypical as the idea of extreme male and female brains is, I see that not only are men's strengths more valuable than women's, but their problems are more important, too.

Miss Gonzo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miss Gonzo said...

Oh, yes, 'magical thinkers', that's the term, I've been looking for!
I don't only think that E/S binary is sloppily defined, but to attribute it to gender is what's so wrong. There are so many influences in society, from earliest childhood we get bombarded with our gender's respective stereotype, even children's shampoo comes in blue "Pirate" and pink "Princess" editions these days, attributing gender differences to biology is ridiculous.
I think the reason why SBJ ignores Williams Syndrome, is because it comes with slight mental retardation, and to attribute that to female brains would make his sexism, just too apparent.
(That's the thing I was hinting at in my first comment...)

@ Catana, I've changed the comment settings! ;)

Cereus_Sphinx said...

And of course Systemizing gets coded as Male and Emphathizing=Female.

What about Emphathizing with complex systems or treating people as systems of motivation etc.?

I see a lot of room for overlap.

Sarah said...

Why is he treating Systemizing and Emphasizing--even if we agree they are useful categories--as a zero sum game? (In fact, I know I've read a glowing article about him in which his students describe him as both.) Shouldn't it be possible to be bad/good at both skillsets? (Though I, like you, have strong skepticism about the manner in which he defines these skillsets.) Not to mention the fact that his babble about technology is SO culturally centric. "Technology" means different things in different times and places, and generational differences also play a huge role. Most people of our generation know how to send a text message; most of our grandparents do not. Are we more "systematic" as a generation?

And socializing can be considered a system as well. It requires knowledge of rules and protocols, stored information about individuals and relationships. Yeah, SBC's idea of a "system" is pretty flawed.

It's also interesting that SBC says these "hyper female brains" haven't been documented because they aren't dysfunctional. Really? I imagine it would be very hard to feel the emotions and pain of everyone around you without being disabled by it. In fact, I know this to be true because my partner--yes, my autistic, male partner--is extremely empathetic. When people he cares about are in pain, he often feels our pain and it can be extremely difficult for him.

All of these ramblings mean to say that SBC is full of crock, and thanks for this post. I have a particular interest in debunking SBC from a feminist and scientific POV.

Lindsay said...

"Technology" means different things in different times and places, and generational differences also play a huge role.

I didn't think of this, but you're right. Indeed, I think sometimes it's the *LACK* of readily-available gadgets (computers, calculators, cell phones) in a person's life that makes that person have to use their head more in solving everyday problems.

An example my partner (who is NT but has a lot of autistic traits --- and is a strong empathizer!) likes to bring up is the need, prior to the widespread use of cellphones, to plan one's day out in greater detail in advance. He thinks the ability of most people in our generation (well, he's Gen X and I'm a millennial, but whatever) to just pull out a cell phone and call a friend for a ride or whatever if a snag pops up has eroded a lot of our problem-solving ability.

Anyway, yes, I think there's just as much "systemizing" involved in solving one's problems in old-fashioned, low-tech ways as there is in knowing how to use a computer or cell phone.

Why is he treating Systemizing and Empathizing ... as a zero-sum game?

I actually don't think he is. He does talk about, besides Types S and E (each of which are capable of both types of thinking, even though they are better at one than the other), a Type B, which is a person equally skilled at both.

It's also only the extreme empathizers or systemizers, IIRC, who are supposed to be impaired at the opposite task.

He also, to his credit, admits that one's biological sex does not determine one's brain type. But he does seem to believe most women are E's and most men are S's, so sometimes this admission seems a bit like a "Yes, I know you're there and I've accounted for you. Now shut up!!" to feminist critics.

I also totally agree on the pitfalls of hyperempathy. I am a hypoempath myself --- very much a stereotypical Aspie, though I think I am probably in the minority among autistics on this --- but the hyperempaths I know definitely feel overwhelmed by other people's emotions. My partner, who is not even a hyperempath, just a somewhat empathic person, is unable to watch movies in which too many bad things happen to the protagonist, because it makes *HIM* feel too bad. Most slapstick comedy is therefore not funny to him.

Beastinblack said...

I think the extreme male brain theory is correct, but other factors are involved as well. Can one be technically systematic, artistically systematic? When I intellectualise theory of mind, I am systematic and I can see alot deeper than the usual 'intuitive' style NT's use, alas it takes alot longer and makes a mess of a rapid fire social situation but oh well! Forget the autistic spectrum, it is called the HUMAN spectrum, there is a bellmouth graph just as it is with IQ with an even spread from one extreme to other, with the vast majority of the population concentrated in the middle. It is called genetic variation. People who can empathise and systemise are right in the middle, but that is only one part of the deal. Life experience can also have an effect. Then again I can empathise with machines, does that count? :)

Anonymous said...


Sister Wolf said...

I came across this post by googling "extreme empathy disorder." I have what I call an extreme Girly Brain. Taking Simon Baron-Cohen's tests confirmed my theory: I scored very high in empathy and nearly zero in systemizing. I am a person who people want to confide in, and over and over they begin by saying: "I've never told this to anyone but."

I am highly sensitive to everything but manage to stand it by taking Effexor, which is somewhat dulling to the emotions.

I used to joke that I was smart but had only "one lobe firing." I feel retarded, in the sense of being unable to understand maps, instruction manuals, changing a typewriter ribbon, etc etc etc. But just as SBC suggests, I've been able to make my way in life by finding people who don't mind doing things me.

I feel very helpless in situations I can't navigate via my people skills and personal charm. My Girlie Brain is a huge problem. I wish someone had thought of intervention for Girlie Brain when I was a little kid. My deficits in systemizing have been crippling in many ways.

I'm glad that you have addressed this issue, even though you seem to doubt the veracity of an Extreme Female Brain!

best, Sister Wolf

Anonymous said...

I'm no expert. I took the test, and found I'm an Extreme E brain type. To be honest, I'm relieved! I often wonder if there is something wrong with me because of how easily I can get turned around when driving, how little interest I have in details, why historical dates are of no importance to me, but historical events fascinate me - and all kinds of little obscurities that have followed me throughout life. Rather than be offended by his generalities, I am thankful to know that others are "built" like I am! A little more of this, a little less of that. Helps me to know I am maybe not "deficient" but rather built differently than others. I'm glad I took it and it helps me understand and forgive myself a little more for what I often think of as something broken about myself. :)

Lindsay said...

Hey, Anon!

I'm glad you were able to feel less alone. You and Sister Wolf. You're right, you are not broken or "deficient," you're just different. Like me. :)

(Weirdly, I also get lost very easily and can't drive, even though I am autistic and very good at math and science. I do not doubt that all the traits he's talking about exist, and that being very bad at one thing or another can be disabling; I just doubt that the traits all relate to each other in the neat, binaristic way he seems to think they do. If they did, I could not exist.)