Monday, September 21, 2009

"Gendered" differences in the brain aren't so clear cut

by Brenda Jin

Have you ever heard the theory that men and women behave differently, because they simply think differently? Their biology is different, their brains are different, and their neurological hard-wiring can explain gendered behavioral differences.

However, in a recent article in Scientific American, Lise Eliot explores the surprising recent findings on social cognition and interpersonal judgment by a team of researchers at the University of Iowa. Interestingly, this group of researches has added two crucial elements to their study which throw into question the idea that our brains have been “biologically” set up to make females more sympathetic or understanding—age and a “psychological” gender test (in addition to the conventional standard of biological sex). They discovered that not only does the area of the brain responsible for social cognition and interpersonal judgment—known as the “SG” for “straight gyrus”—change during puberty; the section is larger in prepubescent boys than in prepubescent girls! Furthermore, the “SG” is correspondingly larger in individuals determined to be more “psychologically” female.

Therefore, although a common assumption associated as well with the so-called “evolutionary” reason that women have developed an ability to empathize and understand others better (because they have historically been care-givers of children), research reveals that it is actually unclear whether certain behavioral differences are hard-wired, given the extreme malleability of the brain, which also begs the question: are we asking the questions backwards? Does society simply associate “social cognition” with gender so strongly that those who are supposedly more socially aware are also determined to be more “psychologically feminine”?

One thing is for sure: experience changes the brain, and this research reveals that there is a huge grey area in determining which behaviors are socially learned and assigned by society versus those that have been with us from birth. A new understanding of nature vs. nurture as seen by how the brain changes before and after puberty and the relationship of brain function to social function might show us that nurture plays a larger role than previously though in defining so-called “gendered” behavior.


At September 21, 2009 at 3:15 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

Brenda, thanks for beginning a nuanced discussion on how biology and socialization affect what we know as gender. All too often, we're asked to choose between two absolute, and equally risible positions: either gender is a social construction, and can be altered or abolished with heightened awareness; or, it is entirely innate, with people evolutionarily programmed to act a certain way, like little automatons. From my anecdotal experience, feminist bloggers tend to fall into the former camp, and people who sell weekly magazines in the latter.

This nature vs. nurture argument is like arguing over which more greatly determines the area of a rectangle: its length or its width? Biological sex differences (and we shouldn't just assume that biology creates a gender dichotomy) can account for things like height dimorphism, and higher average levels of physical aggression amongst males. But these don't explain how gender roles will be manifested in a specific culture.

We should also be wary of evolutionary 'Just-So Stories' (plausible-sounding reasons for people's behavior that lack any evidence to support them), and we shouldn't construe descriptive sex differences as normative (e.g., women on average show less physical aggression ≠ women should show less physical aggression).

I used to attribute my prowess at parallel-parking to my Stone Age male ancestors' need to parallel park their cars in front of their mistresses' caves, thus leading to more offspring, thus selecting for sons with parking skills. This is nonsense, of course, but no more so than some of the "it's our evolution" explanations I've read in Newsweek.


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