Gina Rippon: The Myth of the Gendered Brain

Transcript by Molly Benson.

Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle’s science series. On Friday, September 20th professor and international cognitive neuroscience researcher, Gina Rippon, came to Town Hall to challenge the myth that men and women are hardwired differently. Drawing on cutting edge research, Gina presented the latest analysis into our brains, which are like mosaics comprised of both male and female components that remain plastic throughout our lives. She presented her new book, Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds.

Gina Rippon: Thanks very much for that very kind introduction and thank you very much for inviting me here. I can’t actually see any of you but there seems to be quite a lot of you, so thank you very much for coming.

As was mentioned, what I’m going to be talking about tonight is the book that I’ve just written. But the focus, you’ll probably be pleased to hear, is not just about the book; it’s why I wrote the book, the science behind the story that I’m telling in the book, and why I think it’s actually important. The book is called—it’s just been released in the States—it’s called Gender and Our Brains. It’s called something different in the UK. It’s called The Gendered Brain. The US publishers said they didn’t think the American audience could cope with the term gendered. I’m afraid my response was: as a nation which seems to spend a lot of its time changing nouns and verbs, I’d be really surprised. Anyway. Okay, so two books for the price of one. It’s called Gender and Our Brains and the subtitle How your World Makes Up Your Mind, and that’s really to give you, now, if you like, the take home message, which I think we need to look very carefully at the world in which our brains function because I think it has a much greater impact on our brains than we ever realized. And that’s what 21st century brings to this argument. Now the book is called Gender and Our Brains, and that gives a bit of a clue about the particular difference that I’m interested in. But in fact my journey, if you like, started because I was very interested in how any brains get to be different.

As was mentioned, I’m principally an autism researcher, and there’s a great saying in the autism community that if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And having spent a lot of time doing research, looking at a whole range of individuals all given the label autistic and realizing how different their brains were, I thought we really need to find out about individual differences in the brain and how they get to be like that. And so I thought, “Okay, well the first thing to do is actually to ask the question about the fundamental differences that we already know about.” I work in the Aston Brain Center. We have all sorts of different brain imaging techniques. We’re very fortunate to have all the contemporary ones. As you can see, it’s a very old picture of me with a very small daughter discovering the dangers of having a mother as a neuroscientist. She did seem to have survived, anyway. So far. And we also have the classic FMRI systems, which most people are familiar with, and we also have the very unusual system called magnetoencephalography. Basically we have all sorts of different ways of looking at the brain, both structures and functions, and we can produce these amazing images with which you will be familiar. They tend to grace a lot of popular discussion about the brain as well as being found in more obscure neuroscience journals. I love showing these pictures because I think they’re wonderful how we can show, in a whole range of different ways, what the brain can do. But as we’ll see later, sometimes they’re part of the problem as well as being part of the solution.

Okay, so let’s have a quick look at what this argument is about, and that is really to say what is the particular difference that we’re looking at? How do female brains get to be different from male brains? Because I was interested in brain difference, I thought, “Let’s have a look at the best established brain difference we know about that everybody agrees on. There’s a female brain and a male brain and they’re different and that has all kinds of consequences.” And the underlying story was something along the lines of biology is destiny. You have the brain you’re born with, and that is determined biologically. And the route that that brain takes through life is pretty fixed. The end point is pretty inevitable. And it doesn’t vary that much.

I can move away from here, can’t I, because I’ve got this on. Sorry, I’ve been told to stand by the microphone, and then I realized now I’ve got this on I can actually move, which should be easier.

Okay. So what we’re looking at is something like a male brain here arrives in the world, perhaps with some of the skills it might need to become the superior individual that it will be. And as it grows bigger it gets more of those skills, and eventually it becomes a superior, completely superior organ which will drive the superior individual through the world. The other sort of brain, slightly smaller, and we’ll come back to that, doesn’t, perhaps, have so many of the skills that might have made it a leader of people. Have to be sure that it doesn’t get exposed to dangers of a higher education. We’ll see a bit later that early thinking about women was pretty rude, and we will come back to that. But it then moves on to be talking about complimentary skills, so that you didn’t want to risk women’s brains being damaged by higher education because that would prevent them being able to reproduce, literally. So, you get this brain which does grow but doesn’t necessarily acquire too many skills. And this is quite emotional brain, very good at looking at emotions, etc., understanding, being empathic. And so we knew fairly clearly that there were two types of brain and even to the extent that there’s two types of books written about it. Okay. So we have the male brain and the female brain, and that was pretty well established. And even right up to the end of the last century, there was a belief that there were two sorts of brain. And so I thought this was a good way to understand how brains got to be different because we knew these brains were different, so let’s have a look at the chain of argument.

Reminder that this is actually a very old issue, up to 200 years ago and possibly longer, but in terms of actually thinking about the brain. And it didn’t use to be a question, it wasn’t, “Are men’s and women’s brains different?” It was a statement: “Men’s and women’s brains are different.” It was a slightly more challenging statement than that because, in fact, the emerging neuroscience science and the practitioners in neuroscience looked at society, looked at the status quo, and said, “Clearly women are inferior to men because they’re socially inferior, educationally inferior, etc. So what we need to do is to find the measure which will explain the brain’s role in this inferiority.” So they were starting out to find out that women’s brains, basically, were inferior, and you get an idea of the particularly, perhaps, lack of objectivity these scientists had with respect to the people they were studying. Women represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and are closer to children and savages than to an adult civilized man. And another charming protagonist at the time, Laban, said that you could occasionally get quite bright women, but it was so rare. It was actually like a gorilla with two heads. In fact, I did want to call my book The Problem of the Two Headed Gorilla, but again, the publishers thought perhaps that was a bit not serious enough.

So we have issues here where what was actually the history of— and I had great fun exploring the different ways in which these scientists were trying to prove that women’s brains were inferior. Remembering, of course, we couldn’t actually look at the live brain. We could look at dead brains, we could look at the consequences perhaps of damaged or disease brains, but we didn’t have a really good idea about how the brain worked. Early studies for example, you could take an empty skull and fill it with bird seed, weigh the bird seed, and get an idea about how big the brain that was in that skull might have been. Big excitement, initially, because it was found, on average—and we’ll come back to that because that’s important—men’s brains were five ounces heavier than women’s. And so that was the solution. Having a bigger brain made you intelligent, and that’s why men were more intelligent than women. And then somebody, spoilsport, pointed out that sperm whales and elephants, for example, also have big brains, bigger brains than human men, and generally they’re not renowned for being more intelligent. So what we then found was a big effort on the part of these scientists, and it’s really, I mean, it is quite funny to look at, but it does make you realize that the kind of measures we use are something that we ought to be aware of. Because the idea was the success of these measures was based on the chain of success that they measured, so as long as you could have white—and it intersected with race as well—upper class, educated men at the top of whatever scale that metric generated with women next and then the lower classes and then other races lower, that was the success of that measure. So all sorts of weird things like feeling bumps on the skull or looking at angles. So really we need to be aware that the science of this particular “hunt the difference agenda”, as I’ve called it, was firmly placed in a political context. It was looking at society, trying to explain a status quo.

It’s an old question, but it’s actually a question that remains very important and which generates a lot of excitement. So that if I, as a neuroscientist, see in some kind of obscure neuroscience journal there’s a whiff of a sex difference in a paper—maybe there’s all sorts of other things as well, but perhaps the heading has a sex difference—you’ll know that, certainly in the UK and possibly in the U S as well, within two to three weeks of that paper coming out, all of a sudden the popular press will get excited and you’ll get headlines, “Men’s and women’s brains: the truth”. And that’s always the kind of phrasing: “The proof at last”, “Truth at lost”, “Men’s and women’s brains: the truth”. And you kind of wonder what the end of that sentence might be. “Men have bigger brains than women research reveals”, and we’ll come back to that as well. But the idea is that this appears to be very important, so important the press wish to remind us all the time that science is bolstering up this belief that men’s and women’s brains are different. And fantastic the success that they’re having.

Okay. Effectively we’re looking at what looks like a very simple chain of argument, whatever it is that made men’s and women’s bodies different—and the early researchers obviously didn’t know about genotypes, but effectively they were aware that men and women had different anatomies—whatever was that determined that also determine the fact that they had different brains. And if they had different brains—and the experimental psychologists weighed in there as well—then they had different skills, different temperaments, different personalities. And that meant that they could do different jobs or have different places in society or, perhaps, couldn’t do a job at all because their brains weren’t appropriate. So if you had a female brain, and this was inextricably linked to the fact that you had a female body, that meant that you were great at empathy but rubbish at reading maps. Whereas if you had a male brain, again inextricably linked to the male body, then you are very good at spatial, sciencey-type tasks, but not really good at listening or understanding emotion. And that particular set of skills gave you a particular role in society. Remembering, of course, that the early scientists, as I’ve said, we’re working backwards from that chain of argument, but it’s presented to us in this order, mainly, so there’s a nice unfolding idea that’s well established. And the idea is that these two brains, [inaudible] so called dimorphic, so there’s either a male brain or a female brain. But remember that all of these conclusions were reached before we really knew what the brain was actually like. Again, we were still basing this on looking at consequences of brain damage, etc.

So moving on, we need to say, “What happened next?” So 1990s brain imaging arrives, and what we find is all of a sudden we feel that we do have direct access to what’s going on in the brain. We can put a living human being in a scanner, we can give them any range of tasks, we can ask them questions, we can play them music, whatever we like, and we can generate these amazing images, which are a way of communicating that activity which appear very immediate. And so at last we think, “Oh we know whereabouts in the brain languages. We know what happens when somebody is looking at a picture or trying to remember a list of words, etc.” But in fact the trouble was with those particular images was that they are the end result of the long, long chain of quite complicated statistical analysis of different kinds of image manipulation. Not in any way fraudulent but just making sure that the story the scientist was trying to tell was clear. So it looks as though there’s an amazing bit of the brain lights up there when you’re asking somebody to do something, not realizing that these are actually made to emphasize differences because the brain is active all the time. The old myths about 10% of the brain, only be using 10% of the brain are way past their sell by date; our brain is very active. And to define these differences you really have to do a lot of image manipulation.

But what happened was that people who, at that stage, were very keen in what we call looking at relationship gurus, for example, self help books. There was a big wave of those books which hijacked these wonderful images. They’d had these theories about men and women being different. We had the female brain, seen that before. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, book that everybody seems familiar with, had a very powerful impact because it felt that, at last, the truth, again, we could understand why men and women were different. It was because the neuroscientists approved it, and these books got filled with lots and lots of these sorts of images. Often with not very clear explanations of where they came from, and also with no axes or anything. But all you need to look is that there’s a big, you know, the man has a piece of the brain there which lights up, whereas it is that part of the brain which women’s lights up. Shit, doesn’t that look different.

Unfortunately, that really was an era when neuroscience was very badly misrepresented, misunderstood. In The Female Brain, for example, there’s a long piece which is about how men and women use language differently, and it’s got a sort of sciencey-type quotations and references. If you actually go and find the references and look at them very carefully, all of that research was actually done on songbirds. So we do know a lot about songbirds, but actually perhaps not that informative about the human race. But never mind. And the reason I’m drawing your attention to this, is these books really inform belief, they sustain stereotypes, they actually don’t diminish them in any way. People say, “But neuroscience has shown.” In the beginning of this century, neuro- became the prefix that was put in front of anything that wants to be serious. So you had neuro-philosophy and neuro-literature, even neuro-kitchen cabinetry was something I came across. You can ask me about that afterwards. I call this “unashamedly neuro-trash”, and I feel it’s something that we should be aware of because it did actually inform a lot of what we were talking about.

Okay. The other thing that scientists themselves didn’t say, “Now is the chance for a clean sheet. We’ll go and look at the original thoughts we had about brains of any kind, but particularly perhaps male and female brains, really look into the basics, the fundamentals of this issue.” They continued with the hunt the difference agenda. They continued to say, “Let’s find how our techniques can prove that men and women are different.” And we get books a bit like this. This one’s called The Essential Difference, and essential is an interesting word; language is interesting in this area. Essential in this case really means biological essence, so something about your biology gives you particular qualities or characteristics. But if you stopped anybody in the street and said, “What do you think the word essential means?” They’d probably say, “Well really, really important. Something that we have to have.” And it’s more to realize that this issue still underpins a lot of what we’re thinking about, and why it’s important to understand it. This book, for example, starts, “The female brain is—” so there is a female brain because we’re saying that that’s what it is— “is hardwired,” underlined, so fixed, “for empathy. The male brain is hardwired for understanding systems.” So clear statement in a very popular book, which informs a lot of research in the area. It is only later on in the book that Simon Baron-Cohen, the author, says, “Of course, you don’t actually have to be a woman to have a female brain or a man to have a male brain.” At which point you think, “This is an area where language really matters. If you’re talking about this kind of brain, why are you calling it a female brain?” Because of course it continues to sustain the stereotypes.

So we’ve arrived at a time where we’ve got an idea of actually what’s going on. Looking at this old question, it’s still not being addressed as a question. It’s being taken as a given. What I really wanted to do is to say, “I think there are some really important questions in this area.” First of all, are there any sex differences in the brain? Fairly fundamental issue. Neuroscientists do have the tools to find out. And certainly if you looked at the literature, if you had a quick scan over all the abstracts using thousands of papers in this area, look how many are reporting differences. So that proves there are differences. But again, if you drill down a bit, you find that although there are differences reported, they’re not often the same differences. So you can get one set of papers will report that men have bigger amygdala or bigger hippocampus, part of the brain will come back to, and then another study will come along and say, “Well, we’ve looked at all of the papers measuring the amygdala and the hippocampus looking for sex differences. We looked at the effect size, how big these differences are, and we haven’t actually found the same differences.” I’d have to say, and you might think, “So, what have you neuroscientists has been doing all this time?” That there is no consistent structure in the brain, pattern of networks, different characteristics which reliably distinguish a man’s brain from a woman’s brain. I couldn’t look at a brain image and say, “Oh, I know that’s from a man or that’s from a woman.” A bit like those police procedurals when, you know, somebody picks up a bone and says, “That’s a 34 year old woman who had two children and likes gin,” or something. We can’t do that with brains. You could have a pretty good guess, and they’re now starting to look at pattern recognition techniques with machine learning. And they’re talking proudly about the fact that you can distinguish brains with 80% probability, and you think, “We’re talking about brains which you claim, that the literature in history has claimed, are dimorphic, a male brain, and a female brain. If it’s not that easy to distinguish them, we maybe should look back at that dichotomy.” So that’s important to remember.

The other thing that’s important to remember, and I think this was one of the slides that got lost at the beginning, was what we’re talking about when we’re talking about differences. I don’t know if you can see here; you’ve got two overlapping curves of data. Now, if you take two groups of people, male and female, and run them through any sort of tests, behavioral or brain imaging, you will find that you get characteristic data like that; so big amount of variability within each group. If you put the data on the same axis, you’ll have found a huge amount of overlap. So the differences we’re talking about are actually very tiny. They may be statistically significant, if you’ve got a big enough data set, but they’re actually very small. And what we ignore—and this is where my autism research interests came in—we ignore the variability within each group. The differences within groups of males and females are much bigger than the differences between them, and even dyed in the wool sex difference researchers will acknowledge that actually the differences they’re talking about are quite small. But again, with respect to how these are reported—this is quite a famous study, famous in terms of the fact that it was one of the first which reported connectivity differences within the brain, so not just structures because it’s important to remember that we don’t really have a very clear way of mapping structures onto function. We don’t really know what having a bigger amygdala means. It may well be we’re collecting lots and lots of data, a bit like the craniology measures, which are actually not that important for solving the problem we’re trying to address. But this particular paper was looking at wiring diagrams and saying that, “Oh, there’s a big difference between male brains, which are connected more strongly anterior to posterior, and female brains connected more strongly across the hemispheres.” What they didn’t say was that these were a hundred plus pathways where they did find a difference, and this is the biggest difference of any of the pathways they compared. What they didn’t say that was more than, I think it was 100,000 pathways they compared, where they found no difference at all. So you’re starting to think, “What are we actually looking here?” If we’ve got tiny differences, maybe they’re important, but there’s a huge amount of similarities between the two, and a huge amount of variability within the groups. But these scientists were talking about fundamental sex differences. Again, not necessarily to dis neuroscience, but just to say we need to be careful that we’re not feeding into this idea of stereotype.

You might say, “So what actually has 21st century neuroscience brought to this? Is there a different perspective we might be able to use in order to understand it?” And the answer is, hopefully, yes. That’s really to say that there’s, what I call, the three P’s in brain science, which we should understand a better way of actually addressing these issues. And that is the fact that our brains are predictive, they are plastic, and they are permeable. And what those mean is that—and this is very much related to my work with autism—the brain’s not just a fantastic, amazing information processing system, just receiving information and processing it. We now know that the brain is actually much more like a predictive texter or a high end satnav, which anticipates traffic jams, etc. The brain generates rules. It finds out predictability in the information that it’s processing, so it knows when it hears a particular sound what the rest of the sound is likely to be or a sight or, perhaps, an emotional expression, to go into higher level forms. And so the brain is actually interacting with the world all the time in order to gather the rules to drive its owner safely through that world. That’s important to remember because it means the world will have much more of an impact than we were ever aware.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that our brains are very flexible, but only within the last 30 years or so have we realized that that flexibility carries on throughout life. That our brains will change according to the kind of experiences we have. We knew that very small babies’ brains were quite plastic and flexible, and that you could see the changes as they learn different techniques, etc. But we didn’t realize the same was true for adults until we started using brain imaging techniques. And this is an example looking at taxi drivers in London who have very complicated process called “the knowledge” where they have to learn the 20,000 routes within six miles of Charing Cross. Always a useful piece of fact: if you want to get into a black cab in London, you tell them taxi drivers’ brains are amazing, and then they’ll get you where you want to be a lot quicker and, perhaps, not expect such a big tip. But what we’re looking at here is the fact that this was a whole group of studies looking at taxi drivers before they started on this really complicated learning process, which takes three or four years on average, six years for some, lots of people fail. But what they showed was that as they acquired the knowledge, this particular parts of their brain changed in shape, grew larger as they drove those taxis that difference remained, but interestingly, once they retired, those differences disappeared. So it’s a really nice measure of the fact that our brains are very plastic and respond to experiences they have. But of course also it means that if they don’t have those experiences, the brains won’t change.

And finally the brains are also very sensitive to social context. The context in which that information is presented. And there’s a social psychology process called “stereotype threat”, which is if you’re a member of a group which has a reputation for not doing well at something—and I look at girls in maths, for example—and if that’s drawn to their attention, and they’re put in a situation, for example, doing a maths test, they will perform worse than they should do if you understand their performance skills. You can actually show the way in that will not only affect behavior but also changes the brain. And this particular study was looking at three groups of women. One of them were given a task, a mental rotation task —which we’ll come back to—and said, “This is a task which women find very difficult, but not to worry about that. I’m going to put you in the scanner and see what happens to your brain.” Another had a neutral message, and the third group had a positive message: “This is a mental rotation task, and women are generally very good at it, if they think of it as perspective taking. And I want to see what happens when you put you in the scanner.” And you get the predicted pattern of errors. So the ones with the negative message made most mistakes, the ones with the positive, least mistakes. But what was interesting was that their brains reflected that, too. So the ones with the positive message, the appropriate areas of the brain were activated, they solved the problem and did well. Whereas those who were given exactly the same task but in a different social context, if you like, or given different expectations, there was activity in the brain much more associated with, as we’ll see—as you’ve already seen actually—the part of the brain which is activated when you make mistakes; and when you’re getting negative feedback from the feedback loops in your brain. So exactly the same process, but it will respond differently in a social context. Now, I won’t go into this in detail, you’ll be pleased to hear, and probably the projectionist may well too, and that’s really the fact that what is our brain for?

And a new way of thinking about the brain in the 21st century is acknowledging that we all thought our cognitive superiority, which arose from this part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, evolutionary the newest part of the brain and proportionally biggest in humans. So we’re cognitively superior. We solve problems, and we can be cooly logical and work out a problem and hence the picture of Sherlock Holmes. Or we can be amazingly scientifically creative, hence Einstein. What we now know is that this part of the brain is also important for something we’re starting to realize is a really important human success, and that is the fact that we’re social. The fact that, as humans, we have the largest number of social networks, we solve problems collaboratively, we have the largest numbers of people within those social networks, and it’s a worldwide phenomenon. And it’s also very closely associated, this increase in sociability, with the increase in the prefrontal cortex. So understanding social scripts, understanding your own self identity, being aware of social rules, looking at ingroups and outgroups, working out which group you belong to, what the rules of those groups were is a very important part of the brain. And that is guided by the same processes which guide everything in the brain. And we like to think that we have emerged, as Sherlock Holmes, cooly logical, but everything we do is actually colored by emotion; and hence the link to these little Pixar figures down here. If we make a mistake, we get a feeling of sadness, negative feeling. If something goes right or we’re accepted by our in group, it feels good.

And there’s a part of the brain which is what most of my research focuses on, which is a bit like a traffic light system. It’s the part of the brain here called the anterior cingulate cortex, and it bridges, evolutionary, these two parts of the brain: the new part and the old emotional part. And they act like a traffic light system, so if you do something which is wrong, that system will stop you doing it again. If you make some kind of mistake, it will drive you away from that pattern of behavior. And that’s important to hang onto because it means we have a system in the brain which will guide you away from things which result in mistakes and will drive you towards things which will make you feel good. So hang on to that, my little traffic light or inner limiter. Now, I’m not going to go into this in detail, again, you’ll be pleased to hear, but these are all images that I’ve generated and with other colleagues where we’re looking at social behavior. We’re not looking at solving problems and learning lists of languages, etc. We’re looking at the consequence of social negative events. For example, social rejection, and this is measured by a very strange little video game some of you may have heard of called Cyberball. When you’re lying in the scanner and there’s two little cartoon figures throwing the ball to each other, obviously having a good time, and then the experimented says, “There’s going to be your picture will come in into that video game, and they’ll stop throwing the ball to you and let’s see what happens in the brain.” And you have a great time. And I’ve actually done this task and these little figures, you know, cheer when you catch the ball, and then suddenly they stop throwing the ball to you.They just throw it to each other. They’re obviously having a great time, and you’re sitting there, your little cartoon figure, waiting to be included. And you’re not, you’re being rejected. And even though you know that it’s just a little video game, it does, actually, make you feel a bit kind of [huh], and you can rate that [huh] on a self esteem scale. And you do actually show that the brain will change quite dramatically as your self esteem drops. And this is quite a powerful effect. Also other issues associated with loss of self esteem or ranking where you feel you are in a social situation, if you’re very self critical, if you make a mistake. These are all negative social events which can be measured by having very powerful effects on your feeling of self esteem, you’re feeling good about yourself.

Now, what’s intriguing in how powerful this is a driver in our behavior, is that the same areas that are activated by—in fact all of these are my little traffic light system—the same areas that are activated by these social situations, are also the same areas that which are activated when you suffer real pain. If you have a broken leg, or if you’re unfortunate enough to be in the kind of lab which says, “Would you mind if I just give you a little electric shock, maybe a slightly bigger electric shock and carry on it. Just tell me when you’ve had enough.” So being rejected socially or being in a social situation where you’re not part of your ingroup is actually very powerfully negative and very likely to result in behavior that will drive you away from that situation.

So moving on then, let’s have a look at, just briefly, this has behavioral consequences as well. So that if you suffer from any kind of social rejection, it actually may well result—and this is some of the clinical work that I’ve been involved in for some time. Effectively it’s saying that the kind of behavioral changes that were associated with these kinds of changes in the brain means you might have a poor self image. You’re very sensitive to being rejected by an ingroup or being attacked by an outgroup. You have high levels of self criticism. And there’s a form of behavior called “self silencing”, which is almost like you withdraw and feel that this is really not something for you. Now, these are actually sort of pathological conditions, but they do have echoes in the kind of behavior which results if you have negative social experiences.

Okay. There’s one more bit of the jigsaw before I get to the other parts of the talk, which is that all of this starts very, very early. And I think that’s really important to remember in terms of what we’re talking about: gender stereotypes and why we should be interested. We used to think that, well, we know that human babies are dependent and helpless for far longer than the young of any other species, so we always assumed that they were just fairly reactive. Obviously they started to learn language, and they started to walk and acquired all sorts of amazing skills. But we thought fairly early on they were sort of fairly passive, and they would just generally noise-making machines or food absorbing machines or generally disruptive sort of machines. You can tell I’m a mother. But we now know that actually babies arrive in this world as the most amazingly astute social observers. They can pick up social cues literally from when they’re born. Within hours, they’re responding differently to the sight of a human face as opposed to a scrambled image. Within weeks they recognize the difference between their own language and a non-native language. And generally they’re picking up things which are very important for being members of society, right from the very beginning. And I call them “tiny social sponges”. And then pretty quickly something else happens. By the age of about two, they’re starting to pick up what they find is a very important cue in their social world, and that is gender. Now, we’ll come back to the term sex and gender. I’m aware we haven’t gone into that in much detail. So, from the age of about two up to the age of about four children become very serious junior gender detectives. They really want to know what’s a boy like, what’s a girl like, what do boys play with, what do girls play with, what do they wear, etc., what kind of toys are for boys, what kind of toys are for girls? It becomes very important, if anybody’s ever been in a nursery school, children themselves are the worst kind of policing of the dressing up box about who should wear what and who doesn’t wear tiaras, etc. And, generally, what you’re finding there is children are looking into the outside world, working out the clues, the ingroup and the outgroup clues again, but with respect to gender in particular. And my claim is that, as we will see shortly, this is because gender is something which is emphasized hugely in society as a very important differentiator of individuals, going right back if you like, to the idea of the two headed gorilla, etc. But the idea that there is a key difference between two sorts of individuals, and that has consequences for you socially and educationally and what you might choose to do with your life. By the age of about four or five, children are really showing what I call “gender compliance”—and we’ll go into that in a bit detail—but children that age are saying, “I’m a girl and this is what girls do,” or, “I’m a boy and this is what boys do.” So when we’re looking at typically developing children, they have this skill to align themselves appropriately. And that is very important when we realize it starts very early. This is the core bit of the message, and then we could stop there and carry on a bit just with some examples. But I want to point out that what 21st century neuroscience has brought to this debate is that we now know that the human brain is affected much more by the world that it functions in than we ever realized. And therefore, in order to understand the brain and how the brain gets to be different, we need to look at that outside world.

And this is where I got into the power of stereotypes in saying, “Well, let’s have a look at the outside world. We know what changes the brain. Is there evidence in that outside world that certain groups of individuals are treated differently?” This is where we could stop here and generate our own list of gender stereotypes, but here’s some examples which I focused on because I think they’re all key to understanding why it’s important that we should look at this. Welcome to the world of pointlessly gendered products, talking about our tiny little social sponges and the pink and blue tsunami that we plunge them into. And there is a rant in the book—I don’t know if anybody’s read it yet—about gender reveal parties. I’d never heard of them. They have started to emerge in the UK. I was actually looking for—and I hope there’s no card manufacturers—those ghastly cards which you get when children are born. You know, “It’s a baby girl,” in pink or, “It’s a boy,” in blue, etc. And that’s when I came across gender reveal parties. Now, I hasten to add, obviously from your response you know what they are, but the idea is that 20 weeks before humans arrive in this world, we’re already signaling that it’s important whether they’re a male or a female. Now, I’m not saying, as one reviewer suggested, that a fetus is in some way affected by these gender reveal parties. What I’m saying is that, actually, it gives a very important clue about how society stresses this as a difference. Although I do wonder about—there was one video. I got obsessed and I was looking at YouTube videos. There’s one, I think it’s quite sad, actually. There’s three little girls who are clearly the siblings of this expected infant, and there’s a big party. And eventually they cut the cake or release the balloons or whatever it is they’re going to do, and they’re blue balloons or blue confetti. Big cheers and shouting and hurrahs, “At last, at last, It’s a boy.” And you just kind of wonder the sort of feelings that that might engender, even in quite small children, as to who’s important in life or what’s important. And there’s various other ways in which the world continues to treat children differently. You get these, the way in which boys and girls are dressed, slightly ill-advised baby [inaudible] for a baby girl. And we get the classic difference in toys and books where you get what is known as the wave of pink and blue in toy shops, etc. Big move in the UK: let toys be toys. Where people are constantly going into toy shops or criticizing people producing catalogs because they very clearly signal that these toys are for boys, they’re creative, etc., these toys are the girls, they’re pink princessy, and clearly expect children to want to play with things in a particular way.

Now, is this important? Is this just a bit of eye-rolling PC sort of thing? Well, I think it is. I think this is a really nice example of—I mentioned before, the way in which the brain is changed by particular experiences, but also the brain is changed by not having those experiences. And this comes to the idea that psychology has a go-to list of the kinds of things that men are good at, the kinds of things that women are good at. I’ve already mentioned some of them. And one of the most powerful claims is that men are very, very good at spatial processing, much better, even if it’s on average, than women. Hence the map reading, but also hence the success in science. Being able to think spatially to understand the relationships between objects, either mentally or in real life, is claimed as a fundamental aspect of being a good scientist. And there’s a task called the mental rotation task—lots of tasks of assessing this, but this is the classic one—where you get something like a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object. You see these blocks here, and then you have to say these two figures the same except for their orientation. So you have to take that one, you have to imagine it, switch it in your mind to see if it’s actually the same as that one or is one of those arms actually sticking in a different direction? I have to say, stereotypically, I’m very, very bad at that task, but I am very good at parallel parking. So, you know, there is some hope for us spatially incompetent. More seriously, this has been claimed as a fundamental issue in science as why there’s an underrepresentation of women in science, which was mentioned in the introduction. Something I’m interested in.

There was a big survey done in the States where they took a large number of males and females ran them through a whole battery of spatial tasks and found, as had been predicted in fact, a small but reliable difference where males perform better than females. Then they took another measure, they took a measure of spatial training opportunities. Did you play with construction toys as a child? What kind of video games do you play? Do you play video games a lot? How long do you play video games? Do you play a sport which involves some kind of hand eye coordination? For example. And they found once they got that measure and applied it to the data, the sex difference disappeared. This is actually a measure of spatial opportunities, of spatial training. So then you say, “Well, if I’m interested in the differences between males and females, do males and females get different training opportunities?” And this is where you can start to look at, for example, the kind of games that boys characteristically are given or it is assumed that they play. So, here’s a map of Lego. Very complicated diagram. For any of you who’ve done Lego, you always have to turn them upside down at some point to put the wheels on, and then you turn it the other way round and the wheels fall off. But anyway, it is in itself a very good training opportunity. And an amazing training opportunity is the video games like Super Mario, and I give talks in schools and can see the teachers rolling their eyes when I say these are amazingly good at spatial training. But they are, and that’s actually been demonstrated behaviorally; and also it’s been shown to change the brain. You can actually show that if you get somebody who’s played Super Mario a lot, their spatial skills will improve and the brain processing of spatial information will also change. That’s important to remember.

Am I being unfair in saying that this tends to be a male/female divide in who has access to these training opportunities? So, I just give some examples of Lego, being aware that girls weren’t playing with Lego, produced Lego Friends. Not as complicated, obviously, as the kind of Lego they did for boys, so bigger bits. And the girls could actually do things like make hairdressing salons and poodle parlors. But this is my favorite—let’s make sure we get it—and that is STEM Barbie. So Mattel, being aware of the underrepresentation of women in science, decided the solution was to produce Barbie the Engineer. And this is Barbie the Engineer. Very, very short lab coat, even shorter miniskirt underneath. It has got DNA patterns to show it’s sciency. Surprisingly high heels for working in a lab. But then you also say, “So what can Barbie Engineer make? Isn’t this good that we’re encouraging girls to be scientists?” Well actually what Barbie Engineer can make is a pink washing machine, a pink jewelry carousel, and I think there’s also a pink table for cutting out dress patterns, etc. So just drawing your attention to the fact that possibly there is a difference in the training opportunities that children are offered.

Okay. And I’m going to move on through the next, which are just examples which all of you are probably familiar with. And that is the idea, not only that experiences differentiate boys and girls, but also expectations. For example, if we look at education. I was involved in a BBC program a couple of years ago called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? And that was actually going into a class of seven year olds, looking at the gender stereotypes that were evident there, quite accidentally. You know, the boys had a blue cupboard for their coats, and the girls had a pink cupboard for their coats. Nobody knew why. It had just always been like that. So they got the children to paint the cupboards orange, and they could hang their coats where they liked. Just seems minor, but there were all sorts of other examples. The teacher called the girls “sweet pea” and the boys “mate”, and he tended to ask boys to do things like go out and play football or move things and girls sit quietly in the corner and read stories. So there were issues that boys and girls were being treated differently, and, interesting, in this program they removed all of that for six weeks and showed quite dramatic differences. But also within education you’ll find these differences emerging at rather sadly early years. And this was a teacher—a primary school teacher in Israel in fact—tended to over mark boys and under mark girls. And that particular bias score, against all the other factors like socioeconomic status, educational level of parents, etc., was shown to be a very powerful predictor of who would later choose to do science and mathematical subjects at high school and in college. Another study showed that if you gave boys and girls a choice between toys which were for really, really clever people or for people who worked really, really hard, girls were much less likely to choose the toys for really, really clever people because they didn’t believe they were really, really clever. So six year olds. Similarly, nine year olds talking about maths being a boy thing, and therefore, girls, they wouldn’t do maths because even though their performance level was quite often better than the boys, they didn’t think that this was something they’d do.

Now, I’m moving towards the end now because it’s always the questions that are more interesting, I find. I’ll just, again, give you an example of the way in which we need to look very carefully at how the world treats ourselves, boys and girls, women and men, in terms of what they might want to do. And this is a representation of issues associated, I feel, with the underrepresentation of women in science. One of the most famous and probably best scientists that we’ve come across, Charles Darwin, had a very, very strong view about women. I’m afraid he was a brilliant scientist, but an absolutely arch misogynist. “Chief distinction of the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence in whatever he takes up than woman can attain.” And he believed that women were evolutionary lower down the evolution scale than men, and, actually, educating women would upset the progress of evolution. And you say, “Okay, 200 years. We’ve moved on”. And yet all of these rogues gallery here, scientists, male scientists in the last 15 years or so, who made claims that women were not suited to science. Science shouldn’t be wasting its money on educating women to do science because, various ways of describing it, biologically they were not suited to be doing science. So James Damore, the writer of the notorious Google memo, really felt that Google was wasting its money on diversity initiatives because distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ, in part—very kindly—due to biological causes. So, there is clear evidence. If we know, and this is— and I’m going to skip over  the next slide—which is really the same issue that even if women become successful in science, their achievements are described differently. Reminder then, that if you are treated as inferior, rejected by an ingroup, feel you’re pretty low down the scale, that you’re expected to be incompetent, this has fairly major brain changing effects. And so what look like sex differences, a bit like our spatial manipulation task, may well be something which is being brought about by other factors. I’m not in any way denying that there are sex differences in the brain—I have been described as a sex difference denier—but I think the emphasis we put on them and the fact that that’s the end of the explanation rather than the beginning is something that we should really be thinking about very carefully.

So the questions that I was interested in asking was really about are there any sex differences in the brain? And I think the answer is actually none that really explain the amount of variance we see between males and females in terms of their behavior and their success and gender gaps in a whole range of areas. Where do they come from? Well, I think we need to revisit this essential list argument that there’s a kind of biology being in the driving seat and saying, “Let’s have a look at the other things in the world that may be affecting that brain.” So we may land up, indeed, with a brain that is different. The first message is, a gendered world produces a gendered brain. The second message, having shown you all these amazing brain scans, I came across this fantastic drawing by a six year old who really sums it all up: everybody’s brain is attached to the world. It’s really important for brain scientists and anybody who has any responsibility for a brain, including their own, to know that we should look at the world in understanding those differences. So brains reflect the lives they’ve lived. And the final slide, hopefully, is to say the choice is yours. You can, in fact, continue to believe in this essential difference—the mantra, let boys be boys, biology is destiny—and ally yourself with these sorts of literature. Or hopefully you might after now, despite all the slides, think, “Well, perhaps we should look more carefully, have a more nuanced approach and understand how the world affects the brain.” And I will just say—don’t know if there’s any book sellers here—my students, having tried this out on them, they wanted to be social justice warriors and go into bookshops and stick stickers on the books with helpful clues to people as to what they should buy. This is a UK sense of humor, anyway. So that’s what they wanted to put on this one. Whereas this one, helpfully, they put “this should be, at last, the truth”. Thank you.

Audience Member 1: I’d like to say I’m necessarily enriched by your presentation. Anyway, my question is, what does neuroscience teach us about that instant of decision-related criticality, the point when a person, perhaps with a history of a behavior or without, does or does not engage in an act?

GR: Any particular act or just generally?

AM1: Well, I used to work with offenders prior to my retirement, and sometimes when the environment or situation could be the same or similar, sometimes they would act and sometimes they would not. So—

GR: Yeah, I mean it’s almost an impossible question to really untangle. One of the things that I’m hoping that this book is addressing is that we need, for example, to move beyond nature or nurture, to say it’s either one or the other. And the reason it’s almost impossible to unpick that, is that the people we see, in whatever the situation, are bringing a history with them. So they’re not exactly the same. You might say the situation is the same, but that situation will mean different things to different people for different reasons. If it looks like a gender divide, it may well be a gender divide. But are we looking at something which is to do with a predetermined brain process or with a process, a brain process, which has been molded by different kinds of explanations. Does that make sense?

AM1: I was just thinking about behavior.

GR: Exactly. Well, as a brain scientist, all behavior is determined by the brain. So I think if you see a behavior or could be decision making, it could be withdrawing from a situation, it could be becoming much more involved in a situation, all of those, I think, are driven by the brain; but the brain has been molded in particular ways. And I think that that’s what we should be looking at to try and understand. If that’s pathological for individuals, for example, withdrawal or becoming depressed or whatever, then we need to understand that. But I think that’s what my message is.

Audience Member 2: Hi there. This is a little bit of a tangent, but I noticed on slide four or five, I think it was, you talked about the prefrontal cortex being primarily activated— humans being social creatures. And I was just curious if you had any insight in your research about how participation in online communities affects that social center.

GR: That’s a great question. The short answer is we don’t know yet. But it’s clear that the kind of social rejection, as I say—remembering, in fact, that there was a sort of video game, actually, that is a good measure of that—whether or not you need the face to face contact, the eye contact, which is part of being social, or whether or not the awareness that you are part of a group because you can see avatars or individuals, we don’t know yet. And I think that’s an important question. But it’s interesting, for example, working with autistic individuals who find real people difficult to understand and difficult to interrelate. You can help them by putting them in a virtual reality situation, which for some reason makes them feel safer. So it would be very interesting to see how that plays out in a typical community.

AM2: Thank you.

Audience Member 3: Hi, I love your talk first of all and, as a woman in science, really appreciated the nod to that. So as you were talking I just found myself feeling really curious about, you know, gender is not just a binary, it is a spectrum. And so I’m just curious if you can speak to the state of the literature about what we know for folks who identify as transgender and across the lifespan.

GR: I think it certainly has relevance. I do get asked about transgender issues a lot. It’s not an area I research in, so I’m quite cautious because I think it’s such a complex area. A whole range of things: I certainly think that we need to move away from the idea— and I didn’t talk at all really about the difference between sex and gender. In fact, one of the explanation slides kind of whizzed past at some point. The whole idea of the biological sex, that, you know, whatever it is determines your anatomy also determines your brain. That I would say is the kind of biological sex, and the whole issue of the roles that that means you can play is gender. It used to be that it was so determined, that one was inextricably linked to the other. You only had one word, and it was everything was known as sex. And then about the 1980s, they wanted to differentiate them, so you had sex or gender. And now I think you’ll find that the word gender has taken over and actually means everything including biological sex. And there was a big row in the UK in the summer because there was some biology exam where children were asked about different chromosomes, and asked how we know that chromosomes determine gender. And there was a big uproar about it. Apparently it was originally sex, but they thought that might confuse the children, so they put gender. Which, perhaps, says it all. Anyway, so the idea is that we need to get away from this binary. And in fact, even biologists are saying, “We used to think it was a nice clear XX or XY, but that really isn’t the case. We’re looking at a biological spectrum.” Looking at the brain characteristics, if you look at all the data, there’s no clear distinction, reliably, aspect which distinguishes males and females. Certainly there are sex differences associated to hormone receptors, etc, but the role that might play in behavior and in society is probably been overemphasized, definitely been overemphasized. And similarly the idea that you have a gender which is associated with your role in the world, the relationships you have, etc., now that we’re starting to unpack this link, gender could indeed be a spectrum. And I think that’s what we’re seeing now where people are saying, “Actually just because you’re born a boy or you’re born a girl doesn’t mean you necessarily have to be masculine or feminine.” This comes back to the language issue as well. So I think the transgender issue is part of that. I think one of the problems is the remnants of this idea, or the fixation on this idea that your biological sex is inextricably linked to your gender. So that if you feel some kind of disconnect that you don’t fit—you are assigned a male, you are assigned a female at birth, you actually don’t feel male or female—very often people assume that there is something wrong with the biology, and that if you change the biology, that will resolve the puzzle, as it were. And there is evidence that that is not a wholly successful solution. But I think what we can do is just, if you say, “Actually there is no connection. Yes, you’re born a male or a female, but then you can be anything you like in terms of who you feel you wish to associate with or the role you feel you should play in life.” I think that’s an issue there. But I would say that I get into trouble because one of the aspects of individuals, particularly who want to transition, and I don’t want to trivialize this, but there’s a sort of claim that you know, “I’ve got a female brain in a male body or a male brain in a female body.” And then, of course, I come along and say, “Well actually there’s no such thing as a female brain or a male brain.” And I have had individuals who want to transition to say, “Could you scan my brain to show that it’s actually a female brain,” if it’s a man, and I say, “I’ve got no template to say this is what it’s like.” Sorry, that was a long answer to the question. Great question. Thank you.

Audience Member 4: I have a question about the suggestions— you mentioned that external suggestions determine how you do on exams or in problem solving. And I wanted to ask how to counteract that.

GR: Actually, knowledge. It sounds trivial, but knowing that that can be a process can be very liberating, if you like. I mentioned maths anxiety in girls, and very often the understanding that your problems are arising from this external pressure. They’re not to do with you being at fault. They’re to do with an expectation that you’ll make a mistake. And sometimes, actually, just empowering people saying, “Remember, there are situations in which you do well.” So it doesn’t mean go and drill them with more maths. Just get them to understand that there are situations in which they can do well, and very often that can overcome even experimentally manipulated stereotype threat. So I think the knowledge that this can have an effect on you, certainly has been shown experimentally, both behavior and brain level, to be powerful. And getting rid of the stereotypes, too, would be quite useful. Unpacking quite centuries of belief. Is that? Okay.

AM4: Thank you.

Audience Member 5: Hi, thank you so much. I had a question. You mentioned that you’re a mom—and I’m also a mom of a boy and a girl—and I’m just curious how your research has influenced your parenting.

GR: Better ask my daughters that. You saw one of them there. I think, in a way, as people who work in this area, one thing that really struck me— and my daughters were born in the 1980s and 90s and that kind of coincided with the second wave feminism when it was all nurture, and then you just had to change society and anybody could be anything. So I think the thing I focused on most was making sure that they never said they couldn’t do something because they were a girl or— they’re both girls, so [inaudible] said that—and I did get into trouble. One of them never wore a dress until she went to nursery school. My mother was very worried about that. So I think there are issues there. I think it was really knowing— I mean, at that stage I wasn’t as sure as I am now about how profound these effects are because a lot of people think it’s trivial, but actually even quite trivial bits add up. Certainly when you look at—as I say, I do a lot of work on the underrepresentation of women in science—and when you look at the conscious, obviously unconscious, but also conscious bias against women in science, and when you put that together with the fact that being social is a very powerful driver in the human brain, and if you look at pathological conditions like depression and eating disorders and self-harm, they’re all associated with problems of self esteem. So if you’re in a world where, as I said to you, you’re expected to be inferior or in competent or you’re even invisible, then that’s going to have quite a powerful effect. I’m not sure I brought all of that, you know, trying to deal with my small daughters, but I did notice that that was important. And they do still remember that we have pink arguments quite a lot. One of them’s now got a boy, so it’s quite interesting seeing that playing out differently or even the same, actually. But yeah. Okay. Thank you.

House Manager: That will conclude our Q and. A.

GR: Okay.

HM: Thank you so much.

JP: Thank you for listening to our Town Hall Seattle science series. I’m Jini Palmer. Our theme music comes from the Seattle-based band Say Hi and Seattle’s own Barsuk Records. A special thanks to our audio engineer, John Nold. Check out our new season of Town Hall Seattle’s original podcast, In the Moment. Each episode, a local Seattle correspondent interviews somebody coming to Town Hall. They get you excited about upcoming events by giving you a behind the scenes look into a presenter’s content, personality, and interests. If you like our science series, listen to our arts and culture and civic series as well. For more information, to check out our calendar of events, or to support Town Hall go to our website at

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