Sex, maths and the brain

This is a guest post by Georgina Rippon, who is Professor of Cognitive Imaging and Pro-Vice Chancellor (International) at Aston University.

Prf Gina Rippon in a photogrammetry sessionIt has been a busy few months since the ‘Neurotrash’ session at the WOW festival back in March.

I have previously drawn attention to the fact that, while misrepresentation in the popularisation of neuroscience findings is a serious issue, there are also subtle issues within the scientific literature itself.

My colleagues Cordelia Fine, Rebecca Young, Anelis Kaiser and I decided we should put together a ‘toolbox’ for Neuroimaging researchers carrying out research into sex/ gender issues. This would draw attention to knowledge from many years of gender scholarship that, if taken into account when designing, analysing and interpreting their experiments, could bring benefits to the quality and the informativeness of the science. This ‘toolbox’ has just been published here.

The areas covered include:

  • an overview of how, contrary to popular stereotype, differences in female/male behaviour are often small;
  • the mosaic nature of the brain (whereby brains are complex ‘pick n mixes’ of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characteristics, rather than distinct ‘male’ versus ‘female’ brains), and what this means for research design;
  • the fact that participants come to the lab as products of years of gendered experience, which can’t be captured by ticking a female/male box, and what that means for interpretation;
  • the implications of brain structure and function being ‘entangled’ with many more variables such as years in education, occupation, socio-economic status, not to mention the gendered experiences and attitudes which can also change how brains develop;
  • the implications of ways behaviour and brains can change depending on when, where and after what life experiences they are measured, and that differences between the sexes vary across time, place, social group and social context;
  • these insights from gender scholarship can be drawn on to suggest further research directions after the initial ‘snapshot’ of the brain has been taken.

Since the findings of neuroimaging studies can themselves contribute to this gendered environment, our hope is that by incorporating important key principles from gender scholarship into their work, neuroscientists can contribute to more sophisticated science, that can challenge inaccurate and harmful Mars versus Venus misconceptions among the public.

And talking of that… just when you think that the first woman winning the prestigious Fields Medal for mathematics would bring an end to the ‘blame the brain’ brigade, the media starts focussing in again on so-called ‘proof’ that girls can’t do science…  The Daily Mail completely missed the point of a study demonstrating that gender gaps in certain key skills are diminishing as gender gaps in ‘social power’ are diminishing. The DM proclaimed:

“Female brains really ARE different to male minds with women possessing better recall and men excelling at maths.”

The study examined the effects of improved living conditions (such as reductions in GDP and family size) and less gender-restricted educational opportunities, on patterns of cognitive gender differences in middle-aged and older adults in three different European regions. The authors drew attention to their finding of

“a general increase in women’s cognitive performance over time, associated with societal improvements in living conditions and educational opportunities”.

It is hard to reconcile this with the DM headlines and conclusion that

“It is thought the differing strengths can be explained by differences in the biology of the brain [own emphasis] as well as in the way the sexes are treated by society.”

There is no reference at all to the ‘biology of the brain’ in the study, but the DM’s biological determinist interpretation is what will now feed into the public domain, and the ‘blame the brain’ brigade will use this as ‘evidence’ that women can’t engage with STEM subjects because of innate deficits, untouchable by any input from society.

And a psychologist from Glasgow university cheerily added to the melée by declaring in a talk to the British Educational Studies Association that girls’ vocational interests are to do with ‘things’ and not ‘people’ and this is biologically determined so policies aimed at changing these choices are doomed to failure.

As you can imagine, this was pounced on by the media, who then sensationalised the issue (no surprise there!) with overblown remarks such as:

  • “could it be that biology and nature sway females away from the scientific ?” Telegraph
  • “we should give up encouraging girls to do science” Huffington Post

I also had a go at this in a piece for The Conversation but you can’t help worrying that the damage has already been done.

So now I’m just getting ready to hit the British Science Festival with a talk on ‘Sex, Maths and the Brain, partly sponsored by ScienceGrrl, which is addressing the issue that girls don’t engage in science subjects, and asking if it is because they can’t or because they won’t, and seeing if neuroscience has anything to offer by way of explanation. Hope to see some of you there but will anyway let you know how it goes!

You may be wondering what the apparatus is in the great photograph above (and thanks to the photographer Joss McKinley for letting us use it). I am sitting in a photogrammetry system which is part of an EEG dense array set up. This is a camera system which identifies the location of EEG sensors on the scalp. The resulting images are then superimposed on a structural MRI scan to allow source localisation of cortical activity.

Gina Rippon @springfield16.