Neuroscientist Gina Rippon dismantled the myth of the ‘female brain’

Image Credit: GregPlom via Pixabay

The work of Dr Gina Rippon has veered into controversial territory. More controversial, in fact, than you might expect, given that her primary research question is simply “how do brains become different from each other?”

The source of much of this controversy is a book that she has written entitled  “The Gendered brain,” which challenges the notion that our biological sex determines whether we are more or less likely to exhibit certain behavioural traits or excel in certain areas. Are women biologically condemned to have inferior maths and map-reading skills? Are men physiologically hardened against empathy and emotional expression, as well as being, of course, terrible multitaskers? I was intrigued to find out. And apparently I was not the only one – the large auditorium was packed in anticipation of Rippon’s talk.

Rippon makes it clear early on that her argument is not that a female brain is no different to a male brain. It is that every brain is different from every other brain, and that, actually, the sex-determined differences are smaller and arguably less-interesting than the much wider expanse of variation we see in brains generally. Perhaps our fondness of dichotomies – male/female, black/white – renders our thinking rigid and simplistic, stealing our focus from trying to understand other, more complex factors that could better explain what makes brains different from each other.

Neuroscientists have been looking for sex-based differences in brains for years, so Rippon questioning the usefulness of this approach is certainly a challenge to the Status Quo. Even so, her ideas have been met with a surprising amount of resistance. Despite her expertise in the field and well-reasoned arguments, the media have largely responded to Rippon’s work by attempting to turn her into some kind of ‘feminazi’ caricature. Early on in her talk, we were treated to some gems from the tabloid reaction: a Daily Mail headline dismissed her as a “Grumpy old Harridan,” a second Daily Mail headline called her a “post-menopausal affirmative action loser” and, rather confusingly, an accusation that she has an “equality fetish,” courtesy of The Telegraph. (The bizarre implication here being that women and other minorities pursue equality just for some perverse sexual thrill.)

Evidently, the tabloids are rather attached to the idea that brains are inherently male or female, and this is perhaps not surprising. As Rippon took us on a whistle-stop tour of neuroscience through the decades, it quickly became obvious that these concepts go back a long way. Crucially, back to a time where we really had very little knowledge of neuroscience at all.

A (very) brief history of neuroscience.

A couple of centuries ago, early neuroscientists were trying to identify sex-differences between brains in order to explain the lower status of women in society. While it might seem obvious to us now that this was more of a social and cultural issue, differences between males and females seemed so fundamental back then that early scientists believed there simply must be a biological explanation. It was absolutely accepted that these differences would exist in some form, whether they managed to identify them or not.

Take the 1879 quote of the polymath (read: all round brainy guy) Gustave Le Bon, asserting that “all psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man.” In fairness, he does concede that “there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man,” before quickly clarifying the situation: “They are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as for example of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.” Call me a grumpy old harridan but it seems plausible that LeBon was a little biased (along with most of the scientific community of the time).

After a little while (OK, a rather long while) we arrive at the 1990s, which signals the arrival of neuroimaging but also a great tide of what Rippon referred to as “neurotrash.” Now, perhaps it’s because I am one of the proverbial ‘90s kids’, but this part of the talk really resonated with me. I vividly remember the copy of “Men come from Mars, women come from Venus” on my mother’s bedside table, though I was not fortunate enough to come across “Why men don’t iron” (a title that would make my other-half very indignant indeed.)

The ‘insights’ from these books spread like wildfire and neuroscience has since tasked itself with finding the biological basis for such behaviour differences through countless studies. The fixation continues to this very day. As Rippon notes, ‘neurotrash’, like many toxic substances, has a very long half-life.

You might feel, as I do, that there is something problematic here. A good scientific approach is to ask an open-minded question, perform a careful, controlled experiment, and objectively interpret the result. In this instance, we have been led by an assumption (largely influenced by culture), that the male and female brain must be biologically different, and we are trying with all of our might to prove it. This brings to mind an idea by Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking fast and slow) who argues that our beliefs are not as based on reason as we would like to think, regardless of how intelligent we might be. Instead, we tend towards inherent beliefs grounded in reasons that have nothing to do with logic, but much more to do with our upbringing, culture and the beliefs of those around us. We rationalise those beliefs with facts, but if those facts are disproved we are still far more likely to find a new explanation (or disregard the science altogether) than we are to change our minds (hence climate-change denial and the anti-vax movement).

Rippon emphasised that studies looking for robust, reproducible sex-based differences have been largely fruitless. Certainly, there is a size difference of approximately 10 per cent between the average male and female brain. But, as Rippon points out, this is primarily a scaling problem. Men are generally bigger than women and so it stands to reason that their brains, along with all their other organs, would be bigger too. After all, the 47 oz male human brain is dwarfed by the 265 oz brain of the sperm whale, and nobody is suggesting that sperm whales should be doing all the math from now on.

‘P’ is for plastic and permeable

An important theme throughout the talk is the ‘plasticity and permeability’ of the brain. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown that the brain is not rigid and impervious to cultural influences as we might have thought. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Various studies have demonstrated that our beliefs about our ability to achieve a certain task has a considerable effect on our performance of said task. (Thankfully, Rippon assures us that there is evidence indicating that this effect can be reversed once we become aware of it.)

So where does that leave us, given that cultural beliefs about women’s abilities have roots stretching right back to the time of LeBon? Given also, that gender signalling in our culture is omnipresent and manifests itself in all kinds of forms, both blatant and insidious, and beginning in some cases right from baby’s-very-first gender-appropriate blue or pink babygrow.

Moreover, knowing the brain internalises concepts from external sources, and that the world we live in promotes stereotype through all manner of channels –  is it really any wonder that some girls might feel they struggle more in math class, or with spatial reasoning? That some boys might feel uncomfortable expressing emotions or perhaps lack confidence as caregivers? By continually searching for a physiological explanation of these differences, and trying to prove that they are bestowed on us, irreversibly, before birth, are we not making a similar mistake to the one made by the early neuroscientists of the 1800s – expecting biology to explain a cultural issue?

Though Rippons approach is calm, witty and composed, for me the talk evoked a surprising amount of emotion (probably my pesky equality fetish). Though I laughed at the ludicrous “STEM barbie” (she dons an open white lab coat over her mini-skirt and stiletto heels and comes with a handy pink washing machine that can be opened and closed should she wish to exercise her intellect. Frankly, it is probably better that she is not allowed near a lab, given her apparent blatant disregard for health and safety and appropriate footwear.) I feel an undeniable stir of frustration, which quickly morphs into anger on sight of a lilac baby grow with “I hate my thighs” printed on the front (met with an audible gasp from the audience). The discomfort only deepens as Rippon addresses examples from schools: a quote from a young girl who believes she cannot play with a toy because it is just for “really, really clever kids,” a group she has disqualified herself from by default, as well as a prominent belief amongst the children that “math is for boys.”

It stands to reason that this is a scientific topic which can evoke passion from both sides because the impacts of these misconceptions are not limited to the confines of clinical laboratories and research institutes. They pervade our entire culture and have tangible effects on the way we live our lives and our different experiences of the world. It is clear that our obsession with “male” and “female” traits punishes both sexes, leaving anyone who cannot relate to their assigned archetype feeling out of place. Perhaps letting go of this way of thinking would also make the world a more pleasant place for those in our communities who identify as transgender, or those who simply do not wish to categorize themselves either way.  As well of the rest of us, who could feel that we have the capacity to be both empathetic and analytical, liberated to take on map reading, emotional expression, maths and ironing with reckless abandon (all at the same time if need be, in a glorious feat of multi-tasking).

As things wrap up, my only complaint is that Rippon’s publisher did not approve either of her two alternative titles. I think that  “50 shades of grey matter” or “the two-headed gorilla” would have been great.

This post was written by Emma Clarke and edited by Karolina Zieba.

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