Sunday, January 2, 2011

Gender on the Brain: Cordelia Fine Exposes "Neurosexism"

I was given Cordelia Fine's new book, Delusions of Gender, as a Christmas present, and I just finished reading it a couple days ago*.

It's very easy and fun to read, despite going into a lot of technical detail about the design of various studies (although she manages to write about those details in wonderfully clear, simple prose --- I *try* to do that on this blog, but I think her book is better-written, and easier to understand, than many of my researchy posts) and trying to tease out the separate strands of a very complicated knot of biology, psychology, culture that lies underneath the surface of what we understand gender to be.

She spends a lot of time discussing a topic that's also been on my mind a lot recently: fetal testosterone. She takes a much broader view of this literature than I do, because I am focusing exclusively on those studies that I consider relevant to the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, while she's addressing the whole idea that a "male brain" and a "female brain" even exist, much less that they differ as radically as most people writing popular (and academic) books on brain sex seem to think.

She peppers her book with quotations from such works as Louann Brizendine's The Female Brain (if you have time, read Mark Liberman's series of posts on Language Log debunking this book; they're hilarious and eye-opening), Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters, John Gray's however-many-there-are-now Mars and Venus books, Allan and Barbara Pease's** Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, and various books authored or co-authored by Michael Gurian of the Gurian Institute: Leadership and the Sexes, It's a Baby Girl!, and What Could He Be Thinking?

As an additional bit of context, she also quotes liberally from sources a hundred years old or more, laying out their nearly-identical visions of the masculine and feminine mind; the only difference is in what kind of pseudoscientific technobabble is used to justify the idea of separate spheres for men and women: in the old books, it is woman's physical frailty, nervous sensitivity and smaller brain that fit her for a purely domestic life, while in the new books, it is her relatively larger corpus callosum, her greater verbal fluency and emotional sensitivity, that fit her for the caring professions or for full-time wife-and-motherhood.

The book is divided into three parts, the first and last of which (called "'Half-Changed World', Half-Changed Minds" and "Recycling Gender") deal with psychological research on the effects of sexism and gender stereotyping on women's choices, behavior and performance on various tests, and with how children learn to sort themselves into gender categories, starting at very young ages.

Those parts of the book fill in the background for the middle part, "Neurosexism," which discusses research into hormonally-driven "hard-wiring" of gendered interests, behaviors and aptitudes. (It's in this part of the book that she tackles the prenatal-testosterone literature). While she does offer some critique on methodological grounds, her biggest beef is with popularizers who extrapolate universal truths from ambiguous results derived from very small, restricted samples of people.

An example:
[W]hen I decided to follow up [Louann] Brizendine's claim that the female brain is wired to empathize, it nonetheless proved to be an exercise that turned up surprise after surprise. I tracked down every neuroscience study cited by Brizendine as evidence for feminine superiority in mind reading. (No, really, no need to thank me. I do this sort of thing for pleasure). There were many such references, over just a few pages of text, creating the impression that it is no mere opinion, but scientifically established fact, that the female brain is wired for empathy in a way that the male brain is not. Yet fact-checking revealed the deployment of some rather misleading practices. For example, let's work our way through the middle of page 162 to the top of page 164 in her book. We kick off with a study of psychotherapists, which found that therapists develop a good rapport with their clients by mirroring their actions. Casually, Brizendine notes, "All of the therapists who showed these responses happened to be women." For some reason, she fails to mention that this is because only female therapists, selected from phone directories, happened to be recruited for the study.
A little later, readers are told that "brain-imaging studies show that the mere act of observing or imagining another person in a particular emotional state can automatically activate similar brain patterns in the observer --- and females are especially good at this sort of mirroring." Cited as support for this feminine superiority in emotional mirroring is a 2004 neuroimaging study by cognitive neuroscientist Tania Singer and colleagues, who compared brain activation when someone was either receiving a painful electric shock to the hand or was aware that a loved one was receiving the same painful electric shock to the hand. Singer and colleagues found that some brain regions were activated both by being shocked and watching someone else be shocked. If you think I'm going to be nitpicky about what any sex differences in activation in this study mean, you're wrong. Actually, the problem of interpretation is rather more basic. Only women were scanned.

Even when there aren't gross factual errors in the reporting of the research, Fine's inclusion of social- and developmental-psychology perspectives on gender --- how children learn it, how children and adults learn to change their behaviors, and their understanding of themselves, to fit into it --- makes it clear that whatever gendered differences do turn up on brain scans, they are as likely to be the effects of gender socialization as they are to be the underlying physiological cause of gender.

So, if we're not "hard-wired" by means of prenatal and pubertal hormone surges into immutable, characteristic and complementary "male" and "female" selves, what are we? Are we just blank slates, onto which society can write whatever it likes? Is there no such thing as human nature at all?

That's the alternative vision most commonly invoked in these debates: if you don't accept the idea that gender is hard-wired, you must be an environmental determinist who doesn't believe people are born with anything at all in their heads.

Luckily for us, this isn't a binary, and we don't have to choose between nature and nurture.

Here's Fine again, this time from the Epilogue of her book:
The fluidity of the self and the mind is impressive and is in continual cahoots with the environment. When social psychologists discover, for example, that mere words (like competition), everyday objects (like briefcases and boardroom tables), people, or even scenery can trigger particular motives in us, or that similar role models can seep into our most private ambitions, it makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality. We are justified in wondering whether, as gender scholar Michael Kimmel suggests, "gender difference is a product of gender inequality, and not the other way around."

Nor is gender inequality just a part of our minds --- it is also an inextricable part of our biology. We tend to think of the chain of command passing from genes, to hormones, to brains, to environment. (As biologist Robert Sapolsky describes this common misconception, "DNA is the commander, the epicenter from which biology emanates. Nobody tells a gene what to do; it's always the other way around.") Yet most developmental scientists will tell you that one-way arrows of causality are just so last century. The circuits of the brain are quite literally a product of your physical, social, and cultural environment, as well as your behavior and thoughts. What we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression. This neuroplasticity means that, as [neuropsychologist Anelis] Kaiser puts it, the social phenomenon of gender "comes into the brain" and "becomes part of our cerebral biology."

As for hormones that act on the brain, if you cuddle a baby, get a promotion, see billboard after billboard of near-naked women, or hear a gender stereotype that places one sex at a higher status than the other, don't expect your hormonal state to remain impervious. It won't. "Even how we behave or what we think about can affect the levels of our sex hormones," point out Gene Worship authors Gisela Kaplan and Lesley Rogers. This continuous interplay between the biological and the social means that, as Anne Fausto-Sterling has put it, "components of our political, social, and moral struggles become, quite literally, embodied, incorporated into our very physiological being."

And so, when researchers look for sex differences in the brain or the mind, they are hunting a moving target. Both are in continuous interaction with the social context. Some researchers have even started to investigate how the brain, or hormones, respond differently while doing stereotyped tasks, depending on whether gender stereotypes are made salient. And gender differences in the mind can shift from moment to moment: for example, as stereotype threat is created or dispersed, or self-identity changes. But also, our actions and attitudes change the very cultural patterns that interact with the minds of others to coproduce their actions and attitudes that, in turn, become part of the cultural milieu: in short, "culture and psyche make each other up." When a woman persists with a high-level math course or runs as a presidential candidate, or a father leaves work early to pick up the children from school, they are altering, little by little, the implicit patterns of the minds around them. As society slowly changes, so too do the differences between male and female selves, abilities, emotions, values, interests, hormones, and brains --- because each is inextricably intimate with the social context in which it develops and functions.
Our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable, and changeable. And, if we only believe this, it will continue to unravel.

This closing statement encapsulates what I like so much about this book; it brings feminism, sociology, and a more accurate, more nuanced understanding of human biology together to give us a broader view of what gender is --- or at least how many different things, over a person's whole lifetime, go into creating gender.

For some other reviews of this book, see Neuroskeptic*** and Echidne of the Snakes (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

*I was also given Rebecca M. Jordan-Young's Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences, which covers similar ground --- both books poke and prod at the conventional wisdom that sex hormones shape "male" and "female" brains before birth, and that masculine and feminine behaviors, interests and life paths are the inevitable outcomes of these two different types of brain. I haven't finished reading Brain Storm yet, but I will probably also review it here when I do.

**Another of their books, not cited in Fine's book, refers in its title to a particularly stubborn gender stereotype that drives many feminists --- particularly sex-positive feminists --- absolutely batty: Why Men Want Sex and Women Need Love. As if no woman has ever been horny, or no man ever wanted to be loved!

***Who is cited as a source twice, and quoted once, in this book!


eternalstranger said...

The funny thing is, it's not totally implausible to me that men and women would have some brain differences resulting in some different behaviors that are caused by different hormone levels, both in the womb and in the rest of their lives.

But the thing is, whenever I read about one of these studies, I'm annoyed by how they're presented as if men and women are completely and utterly different, and then you look at the actual data and it's more like two generously overlapping bell curves. And obviously that's not even getting into how socialization or biases in self-reported data (which a lot of psych studies seem to use).

What I strongly suspect is going on is that there's some differing tendencies to some extent caused by biological factors, but that there's a lot of variation and that society creates a lot of false dichotomies for both men and women to live up to. For example, little boys are generally more physically active than little girls, and this could be caused by fetal testosterone, but that certainly doesn't mean that there aren't many women who enjoy sports, or that Title IX programs weren't a good idea.

In other words, things tend to get blown way out of proportion, because people like their concepts tied up in neat little dualistic packages.

Lindsay said...

Oh, it's not implausible to me, either!

Like you, I also see that 1) the sexes do differ, on average, in a lot of ways, but 2) these (relatively small) average differences include huge amounts of overlap, and extensive variation within each sex!

Heck, even fetal testosterone, if you look at some of the graphs in my series on various fT studies, can overlap quite a bit.

The Untoward Lady said...

Yes, there is room for examining the effect of socialization on gender expression and even sex stereotyped structural differences. Biology and society are always bilaterally interactive. In many aspects society may, in fact, be the predominant factor. This does not mean that there is no intrinsic, biological difference between male and female brain structures!

The brain is a central component to the reproductive system and in order to be successful it must behave appropriately for the creature's sex: a doe which defends her territory against encroaching stags will not mate and a creature which mates with others of the same sex will not reproduce.

There exists as real and difference between a male and female brain as there exists a difference between an ovary and a testicle. The implications of this disparity may be tempered or exaggerated by the environment. The magnitude and exact nature of this difference may be affected by environment. This relationship is covariate. Nonetheless, it is real: The brain has sex.

Suvi-Tuuli Allan said...

I'm a transsexual woman (assigned male at birth) who is into some "masculine" stuff (computers, science, table hockey) and "presents" somewhere between "tomboyish" and femme (somewhat fluid/multidimensional). I'm still in "the process" and live with my transsexual wife. We, both, have suspected AS.

Male brains, female brains? No, just... brains. Sex and gender are complex, so is the brain.

Matt said...

Just stumbled on this blog, how interesting and cool to find someone with such similar background and interest!

I'm constantly trying to beat the drum in med school about how sex isn't a dichotomy but more of a scatter plot with some more dense data points.

I was lucky enough to have this articulated by Michelle Dumaresq, a canadian MTF downhill mountain biker, when I saw her speak at my university. There is a documentary about her called "100% woman" that deals in part with the trouble athletic organizations have classifying "Men" and "women" since there technically isn't any official definition.

I know this post was more about mind than body, but it's all connected anyway isn't it? =] looking forward to going through your blog

Laurie said...

I'm going to read this one, based on your thorough, well-crafted review.

I hope it's OK to post a link to this review and your blog on my own blog: I'm eager to share your thinking with others!

Laurie said...

p.s. I'm going to assume it's ok to link to your blog, since it's a public one!

Lindsay said...

@Laurie - sure, link away.

Laurie said...

Thanks, L. And I'll be visiting here regularly and I hope to find you a few new readers tomorrow.

Ole Ferme l'Oeil said...

Thank you so much about this post and mentioning this book.
While I'm not very much into science I think I'm going to buy it.
I don't know if you can know how much I hate all these ideas about hard wired gender differences and "boys do this, girls do that" generalization that have sounded so wrong to me since I first heard about it.

Lindsay said...

@Ole Ferme l'Oeil - hey, glad I could be of assistance.

You'll probably like the book --- Fine has a really engaging, witty style, and she's really good at a) keeping the technical stuff to a minimum, and b) explaining it well, and also explaining why it's relevant, when it does come up.

This book is quite layman-friendly.