Saturday, October 14, 2006

Unisex brain a feminist myth

Unisex brain a feminist myth

By Janet Albrechtsen
September 27, 2006 07:32am

ONLY a girl could write The Female Brain and walk away with life and reputation intact. This new book may be contentious, but in fact modern science is merely playing catch-up with what we know intuitively. Girls are different from boys.

Mind-blowing news, huh?

But here's the really brave bit: the unisex brain is a feminist fabrication. Louann Brizendine, an American neuropsychiatrist, has written a book debunking stubborn notions that girls are different only because society makes them so. It's much more to do with the brain, she says. The female brain, to be more precise.

Here's a snap brain quiz. Which sex uses, on average, about 20,000 words a day, in contrast to the 7000 uttered by the other sex? Who has two-and-a-half times the amount of brain space devoted to sexual drive, meaning they think about sex, on average, every 52 seconds? When their feelings are hurt by someone they love, which sex reacts by assuming the relationship is over? Who has larger sections of the brain for action and aggression? If you answered, in order, women, men, women, men, you've been watching too many Woody Allen movies. Now, science is confirming that Woody was right all along.

While more than 99 per cent of male and female genetic coding is the same, it's the less than 1 per cent of difference that packs a punch in marking out women from men. Drawing upon advances in gene technology and brain-imaging techniques that have revolutionised neuroscientific research, Brizendine presents a heady cocktail of structural, chemical, genetic, hormonal and functional differences between women and men.

These biological differences explain the most basic female behaviour. For instance, why do teenage girls endlessly talk? Science suggests that connecting through conversation triggers the pleasure centres in the brain. Talking activates what Brizendine describes as the "fluffy, purring kitty... feel-good brain chemicals" – oxytocin and dopamine – which together deliver "the biggest, fastest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm". Maybe that explains why women like to talk during sex, perhaps looking for a double dose of delight.

OK, that last bit is not in Brizendine's book, but there is plenty that will upset the old bra-burning feminists who steadfastly refuse to allow biology to get in the way of ideology. Let's start with how girls choose a mate. According to Brizendine, "our (female) brains size up a potential partner, and if he fits our ancestral wish list, we get a jolt of chemicals that dizzy us with a rush of laser-focused attention".

And that ancestral wish list has not changed much in the past 1000 years. Brizendine points to a study of 10,000 people across 37 different cultures, that reveals women are less interested in how a man looks and more interested in his wallet and social standing. It may not fit the picture of the modern girl fending for herself but Brizendine is concerned with evidence, and not imagery. And the evidence suggests that, for all the economic and social advances women have made, the powerful desire to have and care for children means many women are still interested in finding a provider. It's part of what Brizendine calls the "inherited architecture of the female brain's mate-choice system".

Equality feminists will be even more disturbed by science that confirms what most of us already know: women are more emotional than men. Cutting to the chase, that means girls are more prone to over-reaction than boys. Were we to map the female brain, Brizendine says the connecting routes for emotion look more like super-highways, compared with the country roads you'd find inside the male brain. In a Stanford University study, when volunteers were shown emotional images while having their brains scanned, nine different areas lit up in women. In men, two areas lit up.

The author concludes that "there's no getting around the fact that women have different emotional perceptions, realities, responses and memories than do men, and these differences – based on brain circuitry and function – are at the heart of many misunderstandings". And it's in the hard-wiring of the brain, rather than environment.

Last year, Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, told an academic conference that his young daughter, when given two trucks in another effort of gender-neutral parenting, treated them like dolls, calling one "daddy truck" and the other "baby truck". Some in the audience reacted with disgust to Summers' address. A biologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology walked out, later saying leaving was the only option, otherwise "I would've either blacked out or thrown up". Another quick test: was the tetchy academic a woman or a man?

In a interview later, the biologist, Nancy Hopkins, said: "It's so upsetting that all these brilliant young women (at Harvard) are being led by a man who views them this way." Summers' leadership did not last long. The uproar came when he hypothesised that genetics, more than environment, might explain the dearth of women in science and engineering. Suggesting that genes may explain why statistical distributions of men's and women's quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical, with more men coming in at the higher end of the scale, did not go down well in academe. Lawrence was eventually hounded out of Harvard.

Not everyone was hoodwinked by ideology. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology who teaches classes on the human mind, told The Harvard Crimson: "Good grief, shouldn't everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigour? That's the difference between a university and a madrassa... People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don't get the concept of a university or free inquiry."

Talking about genetic differences between men and women has long been taboo because, according to feminist orthodoxy, if women were different it necessarily meant they were inferior. But that competition-between-the-sexes business is so old hat these days.

Ignoring the differences, and framing public policy on a pretence that women are something they are not only ends up hurting women. For instance, in the heady days of 1970s feminism, it was assumed that universal child care would free women to achieve true equality with men. We now know that many women would prefer not to outsource the raising of their children. And so we need public policy and workplace changes that recognise that biological drive.

One reviewer suggests the book is "destined to become a classic in the field of gender studies". If Harvard is anything to go by, that will have to happen

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