No Mars, Venus: Men, women have same brain, argues neuroscientist

Neuroscientist Prof Gina Rippon, of Aston University, Birmingham has reminded the world that men and women's brains aren't really different.

FP Staff March 11, 2014 12:56:15 IST
No Mars, Venus: Men, women have same brain, argues neuroscientist

Men from Mars, Women from Venus, boys prefer blue while girls 'naturally' prefer the colour pink. Not really.

Neuroscientist Prof Gina Rippon, of Aston University, Birmingham has reminded the world that men and women's brains aren't really different and that most of the gender differences emerge only through environmental factors.

In a report in Telegraph Rippon argues, "that any differences in brain circuitry only come about through the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of gender stereotyping."

Her work assumes importance in light of a recent study that was released by the researchers based at the University of Pennsylvania who had argued that men and women's brain have different wirings and thus it explains why women were intuitive thinkers and good at multi-tasking while men were good at sports and map-reading.

The earlier study had said that men’s brains had more connectivity within each brain hemisphere, whereas women’s brains had more connectivity across the two hemispheres. Based on these wiring differences, they inferred in their paper, that this explained behavioural differences between the sexes.

You can view the study by University of Pennsylvania researchers here. The study was led by Ragini Verma, among others.

No Mars Venus Men women have same brain argues neuroscientist

Representational Image. Reuters

According to Rippon however, the difference in wiring is purely to environmental factors. She told The Telegraph that “What often isn’t picked up on is how plastic and permeable the brain is. It is changing throughout out lifetime. The world is full of stereotypical attitudes and unconscious bias. It is full of the drip, drip, drip of the gendered environment.”

She also points out that you can't say that one brain is male and one is female, since they tend to look the same. As to women, being better at multi-tasking, she argues that the only reason a women’s brain may be ‘wired’ for multi-tasking is because society expects that of her and so she uses that part of her brain more often.

“The bottom line is that saying there are differences in male and female brains is just not true. There is pretty compelling evidence that any differences are tiny and are the result of environment not biology,” Prof Rippon told the English daily.

She also points out that children's toys tend to play an early role in separating boys and girls, as girls are often given toys which are dolls or tea sets or kitchen sets, while boys are normally given cars, soldiers etc.

As far as the other study goes, which had argued that male and female brains are differently wired and thus do better at some things, it has faced some serious criticisms for the manner in which it arrived at its conclusions.

According to this piece in Wired written by Christian Jarrett, a cognitive neuroscientist turned science writer, the study at University of Pennsylvania used reference inference when drawing their conclusions. While they see different wiring when came to male and female brains, they didn't actually look at behavioural differences in the course of their study and relied on older material to support conclusions for new data.

He argues, that "The way Verma and her colleagues have arrived at the idea that their results support gender stereotypes about map reading, and so on, is via a logical mistake known as “reverse inference”. They looked at where in the brain they found wiring differences and then they’ve made assumptions about the functional meaning of those differences based on what other studies have suggested those brain regions are for."

He points out that they used older studies to boost their findings that difference in brain wiring meant that one sex was better map-reading, while another at multi-tasking.

He writes," They dredged up old ideas about the left brain hemisphere being for analytical thought and the right hemisphere being intuitive. And the one brain region where men supposedly had more cross-hemisphere interconnectivity than women – the cerebellum – the researchers linked purely with motor function, which they said supports the idea that men are wired for action. Maybe they don’t realise, but modern research has shown that the cerebellum is involved in lots of other functions too." 

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