Book of the week
Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds
“Can it be that our culture still wants little girls to stay in their lane?” asked Karen Sandstrom in The Washington Post. In a book “dense with research and point of view,” cognitive researcher Gina Rippon argues that her field is littered with suspect findings about the supposed differences between the brains of men and women. A study can always be found to support the ideas, say, that boys excel at mechanical tasks and girls are more empathetic. Because Rippon, a British professor emeritus, has long been a critic of what she calls neurosexism, she has accumulated many detractors. But she isn’t denying that there are observable differences between the brains of men and women; “she just wants us to accurately understand whatever differences do exist.”
Don’t let the science here intimidate you, said Laura Miller in Slate.com. Rippon is an “irascible but very down-to-earth guide” to brain research, and her withering assault on some of the sloppy work of her peers “reads like a secretly recorded trash-talking session in a lab break room.” She also revisits the 19th century, when male researchers weren’t pondering if women might be inferior intellectually; they were merely hoping to understand why. Today, subtler prejudices are alive and well. The media, meanwhile, tends to ignore studies that highlight commonalities between the genders while playing up those that appear to show differences. What’s often missed, Rippon says, is that the differences can be attributed to the brain’s amazing malleability. In one study she cites, teenage girls who played Tetris regularly for just three months enlarged the areas of their brain associated with spatial processing—a capability often cited as a hallmark strength of the male brain.
“So has Rippon proved that it’s all nurture and no nature?” asked neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen in The Times (U.K.). Hardly. Plenty of research indicates there are measurable differences in the average male and female brain among newborns. A 2001 study that I co-led found that even among 24-hour-old infants, boys gazed longer at objects and girls at human faces. Because that finding “strikes at the heart of Rippon’s thesis,” she attacks it on technicalities. Such criticism of Rippon should be expected, said Sue Nelson in the Financial Times. For years, Rippon has been knocking down myths, and every time her motives are questioned. Instead, her case deserves a hearing. Because when the subject is myths about what women can’t do, “stereotypes are brain changers.” ■