Sex in the brain: do men and women think differently?

Sunday 30 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Lecture Theatre 1

Contemporary thinking about gender differences is confused, with often contradictory attitudes emerging from tradition, science, feminism and identity politics. When Harvard President Larry Summers suggested in 2005 that biological differences in the brain might account for women’s relative absence from the peaks of mathematical achievement, there was an outcry, and he resigned not long after. But publish a book asserting that brain scans show boys and girls to be hard-wired with different aptitudes, and you probably have a bestseller on your hands, and a reorganisation of primary education around your theories. Earlier this year when two Sky Sports presenters joked that women can’t understand the offside rule in football, they were roundly condemned for their sexism. But when government minister Harriet Harman suggested during the financial crisis that ‘Lehmann Sisters’ would not have behaved so recklessly, many felt she had a point.

Newspaper headlines may go too far in claiming women evolved to enjoy shopping or prefer pink, although studies have found greater male aptitude for spatial rotation (or ‘playing Tetris’) and higher female interest in faces in infants as well as adult humans. Nobody denies men are, on average, taller than women, so why should we be squeamish about biological divergence in brain development? Now social equality has more or less been achieved, some scientists say it’s time to accept men and women are differently endowed. But in a world that’s still divided according to gender, critics argue there’s no neutral ground in which a human mind can grow. Slight aptitudes at birth become significant differences in ability by adulthood, thanks to the very plasticity of the human brain. Assume boys are more interested in sport and let them spend hours playing ball, and their brain will indeed show enhanced spatial skills.

Some writers predict that sweeping statements about female linguistic superiority and male scientific abilities will one day seem as ludicrous as the old arguments that women’s smaller brains or more delicate brain fibres rendered them unfitted for political life. Raising the question – why are we so keen to look for the roots of human behaviour inside our skulls? Have we truly reached the limit of what social change can achieve in bringing equality between the sexes, forcing us to seek explanations in science? Or, by asserting natural differences, do we risk limiting the potential of all of us to a narrow fraction of what we might become?

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Speakers
Dr Ellie Lee
reader in social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies

Dr Maurizio Meloni
research fellow, Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham

Dr Anne Moir
neuropsychologist; TV director and producer; author, Brain Sex: the real difference between men and women

Dick Swaab
professor of neurobiology, Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, University of Amsterdam

Chair:
Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, The Singularity & other BBC Radio 4 programmes; writer & performer, science-based comedy shows including BrainSex

Produced by
Timandra Harkness journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, The Singularity & other BBC Radio 4 programmes; writer & performer, science-based comedy shows including BrainSex
Recommended readings
Sex: it’s not all in the brain

In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine demolishes the trendy notion that male and female brains are different, but does not overcome the idea that stereotypes are deeply engrained.

Derbyshire and Powell, spiked, 21 October 2011

Tempests and tales: challenges to the study of sex differences in the brain

The topic of sex differences in brain and behavior continues to garner broad interest and generate considerable controversy. A spate of popular books in the past decade has heralded many of the recent advances in the study of the biological basis of human brain differences in relation to sex and gender. This flurry of attention has also generated lightning rods for criticism.

Margaret M McCarthy and Gregory F Ball, Biology of Sex Differences, 29 April 2011

The Brain Is Not an Explanation

Brain stories have become very popular in the news pages in recent years—and brain imaging stories especially, in part because of the colorful “pictures” that often accompany the data and analysis. But how much can we really conclude from these images? How skeptical should we be, as readers of the science pages in the paper?

Wray Herbert, Association for Psychological Science, 23 March 2011

'There's a responsibility for people who look at sex differences to do so in a very careful way'

In advance of a Guardian/University of Cambridge public forum on gender and behaviour, Simon Baron Cohen talks about male brains, autism, genes and culture

Simon Baron Cohen, Guardian, 16 November 2010

The truth about sex difference is that if men are from Mars, so are women

But if the evidence for biologically innate differences is so flimsy and full of conjecture, why does it continue to have such a hold on the imagination – in bestselling self-help books and among brilliant, respected scientists? Cameron suggests that this grasping after certainty about gender roles is a response to anxiety. There has been, and still is, rapid social change around the roles and opportunities of men and women.

Madeleine Bunting, Guardian, 14 November 2010

fMRI Gets Slap in the Face with a Dead Fish

'The salmon was shown a series of photographs depicting human individuals in social situations. The salmon was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.'

Neuroskeptic blog, 16 September 2010

Brain Storm: the flaws in the science of sex differences

Analyzing virtually all published research that supports the claims of 'human brain organization theory,' Jordan-Young reveals how often these studies fail the standards of science. Even if careful researchers point out the limits of their own studies, other researchers and journalists can easily ignore them because brain organization theory just sounds so right. But if a series of methodological weaknesses, questionable assumptions, inconsistent definitions, and enormous gaps between ambiguous findings and grand conclusions have accumulated through the years, then science isn't scientific at all.

Rebecca Jordan-Young, Harvard University Press, 10 September 2010

The Essential Difference

We all appreciate that there are differences in the typical psychology of men and women. Yet underlying these subtle differences, Simon Baron-Cohen believes, there is one essential difference, and it affects everything we do: Men have a tendency to analyze and construct systems while women are inclined to empathize.

Simon Baron Cohen, Penguin, 4 March 2004

Rebecca M. Jordan-Young speaking about her book, Brain Storm

In this compelling book, Rebecca Jordan-Young takes on the evidence that sex differences are hardwired into the brain. Analyzing virtually all published research that supports the claims of “human brain organization theory,” Jordan-Young reveals how often these studies fail the standards of science.

WGBH

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