Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gender, Sex, and the Brain

I had the opportunity to listen in on a conversation between a young mother and a mother of a college-aged student as they shared experiences, stories, and wisdom. This was at a church function in an urban area. The young mother’s husband was sitting at the table as well, his child in his lap.

The conversation turned as the mother of the college-aged student said, “Just wait until she grows up, then you’ll be up all night worrying.”

Another mother joined in and said, “One time, my son stayed out several hours past his curfew. I was worried sick. And would you believe it? My husband went to bed! I woke him up and asked him how he could sleep when our son could be out there in danger or hurt. My husband replied ‘if there was anything wrong, we would have heard about it. Now I need my rest so I have the energy to kill him when he comes home.’”

Everyone around the table laughed. Then the mother of the college student said, “It’s true, though. My husband and I are the same way. It just goes to show you, mother’s worry about their children and nurture them and love them. The fathers are the disciplinarians. They love their children too, but in a different way.”

I watched the expression of the young father as this conversation continued. The joy in his face, playing with his young daughter, to the nervous agreement he made that yes, as a father, he loved his child in a different way than the mother.

What are the differences between the way a mother and father nurture their children? Well, for one, neuroscientist Lise Eliot shows that mothers and fathers both “respond more to a baby’s cries than the brains of male or female nonparents; the experience of parenthood is stronger than the fact of gender.” According to an article in Discover Magazine on Elliot’s research, published in 2009, there are some differences in brain chemistry between men and women at birth, but the majority of behavior is acquired through experience: “Nature sets the ball rolling, biasing boys and girls toward different interests, but the gaps themselves are largely due to learning and plasticity.”

What are these differences?

Another article, “Do Men and Women Have Different Brains?” (Discovery Fit and Health, 2008) by Molly Edmonds, outlines a few of these differences. For one, men generally have larger brains than women. But, that does not mean that men are smarter, as women have ten times more white matter than men (white matter being dense with neural connections). In this way, one could say that women’s brains compensate for size by having a more complicated setup. Scientists suggest that the reason men have larger brains is simply because they tend to be taller and larger in size, but that women’s brains are set up differently to counteract the size difference.

Another difference is that women tend to use both the right and left hemispheres of the brain while men tend to rely more heavily on the left side of the brain, perhaps relating to the fact that women’s brains are more complex in set-up then men’s brains.

Furthermore, the article cites that men tend to score higher in math than women. The article asks the question if this is a result of nature or nurture—whether men are just inherently better at math and the sciences because of the way their brains work, or if it is acquired through societal expectations and constructs, nurture, and learned behavior. The article almost immediately dismisses this conclusion on the basis of Sandra Witelson’s research. Witelson, a psychologist, examined Albert Einstein’s brain. She said portions were significantly different than that of the average person’s brain. Since there is no evidence of Einstein having a significantly different childhood than the average person, Witelson suggests in her research that brain structure is developed at birth.

One might think that this article proves that there are biological differences in the way men and women think. I do not think that Einstein’s brain can be a proof-case. Certainly, a genius’ brain will look different than that of an average person. But a genius’ brain in and of itself cannot prove that women and men think differently solely because of biology.

Cited before, Eliot’s research, published after the article by Edmonds, believes that there are slight differences in male and female brain structure that accounts for small differences in behavior. These differences are accented by societal constructs. For instance:

“When the toddler son of peaceniks pines for a toy army truck, she argues, he is expressing an inborn tendency toward active, physical play that has been shaped by social influences, not by the effects of a ‘gun gene’ on the Y chromosome. Until about one year of age, boys and girls are equally drawn to dolls; it is only later, when boys become more active, that they strongly prefer balls and cars. Parents also play a role in shaping their children’s interests, often in ways that they may not be fully aware of” (Dickinson).

The article also picks up on the differences between men and women when it comes to math.

“There are certain areas of math involving spatial skills that males definitely perform better at. Even in infancy, boys do a little better at visual mental rotation. But we need to appreciate how much this ability is enhanced through play like sports, building toys, and video games. When it comes to other aspects of math—addition, subtraction—girls actually have an advantage. They do slightly better. So you can’t generalize about all math abilities” (Dickinson).

This is further discussed by Allison Ford in her article “Busted! Five False Myths About Gender Differences.” She writes:

“It’s been established that boys tend to do better on math tests and are more likely than girls to choose math-centric career paths, such as engineering, technology, and computers. The real problem, though, is not an actual biological handicap, but the perception that girls are inferior at math. Many tests, like one professors at the University of Texas and New York University conducted, found that when they tested groups of people who were primed to think about the bias against women, the women scored poorly, but in groups that were primed to think about gender-neutral subjects, the score gap disappeared. This ‘stereotype anxiety’ is a well-known psychological phenomenon in testing, and many researchers now believe it accounts for much of girls’ lower performance on math tests” (Ford).

Ford’s article also looks at other myths, such as women being more emotional, intuitive, and talkative, and men being more competitive, proving that they are just myths.

So what is the answer?

First, it seems that all of the research in these articles is inconclusive. The differences between adult men and women can be just as much acquired as biological. For instance, women might think with both hemispheres more often than men simply because they are taught to do that in an early age, whereas men are taught to think logically at a young age, resulting in more limited development between hemispheres. Also hinted at in some of the articles but not shown extensively is the role hormones play. The levels that hormones (such as testosterone and estrogen) play in all this neurological stuff is still being discovered. Thus, any neurological differences between men and women must be taken with a grain of salt since, at least currently, we do not have the resources to figure out how much truly is biological and how much is developed behavior.

Second, these are just tendencies. Yeah, the majority of men might be better at math (for whatever reason), but some women are geniuses at math. No one should be restricted or expected to fail in any subject simply because they are more likely to because of their sex. As shown, the evidence is not conclusive, and, more likely to fail does not mean will fail. Tendencies are just that: tendencies. Many women can be extraordinarily smart when it comes to math and science, even if the majority of their sex is not. The problem is when these tendencies become rules for the norm, restricting women and men from subjects (or things, emotions, experiences, etc.). Just because a woman might not do as well at math does not mean that a woman should not do math or be discriminated against in hiring or schooling.

Third, humans have a remarkable ability to overcome biology, both for good and for ill. For instance, breast cancer is no longer a death sentence and smallpox has been eradicated from the earth. Also, childhood obesity is on the rise in certain countries, which is primarily due to a harmful and unhealthy diet, interfering in the normal development of a human child. I say this to point out that even if science were to conclusively say that the different ways in which men and women think are solely caused by biology it does not mean it has to stay that way. Some extreme feminists have envisioned a future that would not require women to have children to continue the human population. Perhaps part of this future means that women and men no longer have to be bound to the biological differences in the way they think. Perhaps there will be a future in which women and men truly are able to have an equal footing in all aspects and realms, both physically and mentally. Who knows, it may even happen naturally as humanity continues to evolve.

But, for now, we should stop throwing around these misconceptions about the differences between men and women, at very least for that young father, who was told by the “wise elder” that he should not show compassion, as that’s the mother’s job; for the mother who is expected to be always full of compassion for her children even if she desires to be the disciplinarian; or for both if they want to share equal aspects of parenting in their children’s lives. But most of all, we need to stop this gender stereotyping for the women of yesterday and today who were and are told that they are not smart enough, and therefore not good enough.

A few notes:

1. I am not a scientist. Nor am I analytical in thinking. I perform horribly in math and science. I tend to think much more abstractly. This alone proves that not all men are inherently better than women at math and science. I also say this simply to let readers know that my understanding and knowledge, by my own admission, are not nearly as complete or credible as the sources I quote. There has been a lot of great work done by feminist and non-feminist scientists and psychologists alike, and I direct you to them for more information and further reading. Aside from the articles I quote, I also lift up Lynda Birke’s book, Feminism and the Biological Body, which seeks to bridge the gap between feminist philosophy and biology.

2. A word about the terms “gender” and “sex.” I use the word “sex” to mean one’s biological sex: male, female, or intersexual. I use the word “gender” to mean one’s acquired gender identity and traits, which may or may not be linked to their biology: masculine, feminine, etc. While I try to exclusively use gender and sex as so defined, I cannot say the same for the articles and quotes from other sources. I apologize if this is a source of confusion.

3. I also humbly ask that if you notice any factual errors, please let me know and I will do my best to correct them. Disagreements with points I make, or with the sources I use, can certainly be discussed in a professional manner—in fact—I encourage such discussion. However, comments that are inappropriate, aggressive, or combative will be deleted at my discretion.


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