fMRI scan images

Book review: ‘The Gendered Brain’, by Gina Rippon

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In her first book, Aston University neuroscientist expert Dr Gina Rippon dismantles the concept of essentially male and female brains with warmth, patience and authority.

The myth of essential sex differences, Rippon writes, is a “whack-a-mole” myth. Just when it seems that scientific evidence has put an end to it, it springs back, often appropriating new scientific techniques.

We are all familiar with this myth. It runs through newspaper articles describing evidence of male and female differences (‘Science proves women really are terrible at reading maps’ etc), and self-help books claiming to shed light on how men and women behave. In its latest iteration – which proposes that female brains are better at empathising and male brains are better at systemising – the myth continues to be propagated by esteemed academics such as the University of Cambridge’s Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

In ‘The Gendered Brain: the new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain’ (Penguin, £20, ISBN 9781847924759), Rippon uses her own set of tools to disassemble the stubborn myth.

The idea that female brains are inferior (or less suited to logical tasks) emerged from an age in which women were unquestionably second-class citizens. Since then, pseudoscience and science has been wielded as tools to prove that this was the way it was always meant to be, silencing those pesky women demanding representation and respect in politics, academic and business.

Through her book, Rippon spans many fields of research: hormones, the debunked art of phrenology, brain plasticity, stereotype threat and the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers. However, her real area of expertise is neuroimaging and it is here that she is best positioned to provide a really commanding and detailed debunking of the gender myth.

FMRI is a technique designed for spot the difference. It is no surprise, then, that it has been used time and time again to prove the difference between male and female brains. Rippon explains that the effect sizes we see in male vs. female preferences or skills tests may be described as “statistically significant” but tend to be very small: certainly small enough that you would not be able to determine whether a subject was male or female based on their brain scans. The effect sizes tend to be meaninglessly small for all types of experiments seeking differences between men and women, not just those using fMRI.

This is not to say that fMRI research (or even sex differences research) is “neurotrash”; Rippon is simply calling for researchers to be much more careful about how they plan their experiments and organise their data.

The other area in which Rippon is entirely convincing is in explaining the powerful influence of the social context in which research is conducted and published (research that indicates a sex difference is much more likely to reach publication and be promoted) and in which we are immersed from our birth. We have highly plastic brains and life in a gendered world inevitably shapes our character, confidence and interests.

“Brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners,” Rippon writes. Humans are very sensitive to social signals from birth; signals which indicate that boys don’t cry and girls don’t like (or can’t do) science. It is overwhelmingly these signals which cause us to develop gendered brains, not unavoidable biological differences, she concludes.

Rippon does not take a sledgehammer to the myth as much as she calmly disassembles it piece by piece. Taking apart the myth is not a quick and easy task; she painstakingly explains details of unglamorous but important matters such as statistical analysis in this 450-page book. Some readers may not need this level of detail to be convinced of her arguments, but at least her critics will never be able to accuse her of glossing over the details.

‘The Gendered Brain’ follows a handful of books tackling similar subjects, such as Cordelia Fine’s ‘Testosterone Rex’ and Angela Saini’s ‘Inferior’. However, there is little sense in pitting Rippon against other authors, as these women all have distinct expertise and voices. Rippon’s own voice is authoritative, systematic and warm; she even finds it in her to be polite about the most prominent proponents of the gender myth.

While these matters are so often expressed with fervent dogmatism, ‘The Gendered Brain’ expertly and meticulously argues that essential sex differences are grossly overstated.

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