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“The Female Brain” 31 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Gender.

I just listened to an interview with Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, a neuropsychiatrist who has just published a sort of survey of research into the way female brains work. Although there were a couple of things that I questioned, in general I found her discussion fascinating, as she, like many cognitive scientists, kept talking about the diversity of outcomes and the interaction of environment with brain development and the way the statistics overlap.

1. Probably obvious to most people, it struck me this morning that each individual trait that you can study actually has a different statistical distribution among males and females and that the bell curves would overlap differently.

2. She emphasizes the importance of social reward systems that encourage different behaviors, and cites iceland as an example, where men are funneled into fishing and women are funneled into engineering, so in Iceland, girls score higher on math and science scores.

3. She also emphasized individual differences within genders and insisted over and over that they are talking about statistical averages when they talk about “the genders”.

Some specifics that interested me were the way men and women “do sex,” where women have significantly more brain connections in the area of the brain devoted to attracting mates and men have more connections in the area devoted to persuing mates.  I’m still digesting that bit of information.  One problem or question that I had was her discussion of the visual arousal of men, simply because it contradicts some stuff I read a couple years ago.  Dr. Brizabine said that men have far more highly wired visual cortexes in general (which is interesting, given that women can actually have more color receptors than men) and that they are immediately visually stimulated sexually by an attractive potential partner, and that this leads men to form emotional bonds much more quickly to their potential partners (i.e., love at first sight) than do women.  What I questioned was about the sexual arousal, because of some studies I’ve read that showed the women were not only equally aroused by visual representations of sexual activity, but that they were often aroused by sexual images in general, whereas men were only aroused by particular acts or particular types of women.

I also was disappointed that she didn’t spend more time talking about cognition and learning itself.  She did mention that female brains and male brains will both come up with the same answer to a problem, but that in studying how they do so, they use different neural pathways and processes to come up with the answer (still, of course, in the overlapping bell curve).  She also points out that personal preferences and social reward systems play a huge role here.  And she also mentioned in passing that male and female IQ points are virtually equal (that is, there’s no difference in intelligence outcomes between the genders).  However, in other research I’ve read, they emphasized that male and female brains all can learn the same things; in other words, they emphasized the plasticity of the brains, regardless of the gender of the brain.  I really wanted her to talk about that.

Ultimately, I really wanted it to be more comparative, because as she talked about the nurturing processes in a female brain, I wanted her to say what that was in men, but she simply said that both males and females are ‘hard wired’ for reproduction and caring for young.  I also, as usual, was left with the question of whether or not gay people’s brains are different (the pheromone studies of this past year give clues that say yes they are, and not just that they respond sexually like the opposite sex).

Listen to the interview here, on KQED.org.

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