Tuesday, 1 December 2015

'Male' and 'female' brains aren't real: time to rethink gender stereotypes

Last week, when I was wielding the cordless screwdriver and swearing at the flatpack desk from Amazon, and my husband fussed around the kitchen putting the finishing touches to the evening meal, I wondered idly whether my well-thumbed copy of John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus might not be the sacred text we all were led to believe.

Yesterday, science confirmed my suspicions (and the fact that I’m undoubtedly going to get a Black & Decker in my Christmas stocking).

Researchers who analysed more than 1,400 brain scans have come to the conclusion that when it comes to gender and the brain, there is no sharp division between male and female – it’s all a bit of a grey area.

Yet the contention that men and women think differently has been one of the most cherished beliefs in science – and on Valentine’s Day – for many years.

Scores of studies have aimed to prove our dissimilarities, including one of my favourite pieces of research earlier this year which concluded you had a male brain if you liked “to do” lists and answering the question “Does my bum look big in this?” honestly.

Another study discovered special neurons in the brains of male nematode worms which suggested that men’s brains were wired to pick sex over food.

Presumably this is why men are said to have also developed better map-reading skills, after Utah researchers found that men’s sense of direction allowed them to travel further simply to find more women to have sex with. 

It’s enough to make the stereotypical female mind get completely overemotional in frustration. But thankfully, yesterday’s study isn’t the only one to challenge these kind of assumptions.

Earlier this year, an analysis of more than 76 papers found no difference in the size of men and women’s hippocampus – the part of the brain that controls memory and emotions to the senses, and which is often used as an explanation as to why women are supposedly better at making small talk at the school gates or taking on the chore of writing the family Christmas cards.

The truth is that many of the reasons we believe that men and women’s brains are fired up so differently is because it’s convenient for us to believe this – and it’s likely our cultural assumptions could have influenced how the studies were conducted and interpreted.

At this moment, someone always steps in to point out loudly that anyone who has brought up children has seen boys who prefer guns and girls who prefer dolls no matter how young they may be.

And true, at a children’s party at the weekend, while the girls conscientiously stayed in lane at a bowling alley, the seven-year-old boys indulged in an impromptu wrestling match.

But surely that’s because by that age they’ve been socially conditioned to act in this way? Yet my mother, a true 1970s woman who had raised two girls to enjoy playing with Lego bricks as much as Tiny Tears, had her faith in gender blindness shaken when my baby brother handed a doll, took it by the hair and used it as a car – complete with loud and enthusiastic engine noises.

Still, as Cordelia Fine’s 2010 book Delusions of Gender points out, even that is not as conclusive as it might seen.

Fine tells the story of a woman who conscientiously gave her daughter tools in place of dolls, only to discover the child “undressing” a hammer and singing it to sleep.

The mother came to the conclusion that there could only be innate differences – “at least, until [she was] asked who had been putting her daughter to bed”.

Of course, it would be wrong to deny that men and women aren’t identical. Men’s brains, as a rule, are larger than women’s – but that’s no different from the fact that men on average are taller.

Experiments have shown that men have different hormones affecting their brains, and different parts of female and male brains may light up during neuroimaging scans.

The problem is that you can’t extrapolate from that that any of this has much bearing on whether men and women act, think or feel differently – as yesterday’s study makes clear.

In this study, only eight per cent of people had brains consistent with their sex. The rest of us enjoy writing to-do lists, find reading maps easy as well as making a point of chatting to people they’ve never met.

But, most importantly, that also leaves us without future excuses that some of us secretly rather like. There can be no more justifications for men to stand around in the pub lamenting that they will never understand women, or for women to share a bottle of prosecco in order to moan that men are incomprehensible.

I can now thankfully hand over responsibility for the annual round robin – but can no longer weasel out of driving on long road trips.

No longer can any of us claim that of course men and women are different because otherwise my other half would be more or less genetically engineered to pick clothes up off the floor or maxing out the credit card in the sales.

Nothing to do with inborn gender differences – it’s just the simple fact we are all different.

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