The lecture was given by psychologist Cordelia Fine, who presented a terrific overview of the science behind one of the major identity questions woven into the fabric of our society – that of sex differences. Is there evidence supporting our perception of males and females being intrinsically, essentially different? Is the shape of one’s brain enough to predict one’s gender, or are there more similarities than there are differences?
Cordelia Fine’s work focuses on these topics, and much more besides – her talk also illuminated how the underlying assumptions we have about gender influence everything from social policy to neuroscience research, to shelving in toy stores. Yet when we have a close-up look and do experiments to see whether these differences actually exist, the evidence is scarce, and points towards a tapestry of biological and social gender influences, rather than a clear-cut demarcation of boy things and girl things.
Fine’s full lecture will be available as a radio program on ABC’s RN sometime next week, and I bet it’s going to be a great listen.
Meanwhile, here’s one of the poorly informed neuroscience examples she shared at the lecture – about a brain connectivity study that was widely reported to have found significant differences in male and female brains, and the appalling science media coverage it received.
The latest neuroscience study of sex differences to hit the popular press has inspired some familiar headlines. The Independent, for example, proclaims that:
The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are “better at map reading” (And why women are “better at remembering a conversation”).
The study in question, published in PNAS, used a technology called diffusion tensor imaging to model the structural connectivity of the brains of nearly a thousand young people, ranging in age from eight to 22.
It reports greater connectivity within the hemispheres in males, but greater connnectivity between the hemispheres in females. These findings, the authors conclude in their scientific paper,
suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.
One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. […]