Thursday, December 13, 2018

Stop talking about 'male' and 'female' brains.

As a counterpoint to yesterday's post, which invokes the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism, I pass on some clips from a piece by Joel and Fine that contests this categorization...
Consider, for example, Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s influential Empathizing-Systemizing theory of brains and the accompanying “extreme male brain” theory of autism. This presupposes there is a particular “systemizing” brain type that we could meaningfully describe as “the male brain,” that drives ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that distinguish the typical boy and man from the typical “empathizing” girl and woman. of us, Daphna Joel, led an analysis of four large data sets of brain scans, and found that the sex differences you see overall between men’s and women’s brains aren’t neatly and consistently seen in individual brains. In other words, humans generally don’t have brains with mostly or exclusively “female-typical” features or “male-typical” features. Instead, what’s most common in both females and males are brains with “mosaics” of features, some of them more common in males and some more common in females.
...Joel and colleagues then applied the same kind of analysis to large data sets of psychological variables, to ask: Do sex differences in personality characteristics, attitudes, preferences, and behaviors add up in a consistent way to create two types of humans, each with its own set of psychological features? The answer, again, was no: As for brain structure, the differences created mosaics of feminine and masculine personality traits, attitudes, interests, and behaviors...what was typical of both men and women (70 percent of them, to be exact) was a mosaic of feminine and masculine characteristics.
...if autism is indeed more prevalent in males, this may be associated with a difference between the sexes in the odds that a rare combination of brain characteristics makes an appearance, rather than with the typical male brain being a little more “autistic" than the typical female brain. Indeed, a recent study found that males with autism spectrum disorder had an atypical combination of “female-like” and “male-like” brain activity patterns.
The key point here is that although there are sex differences in brain and behavior, when you move away from group-level differences in single features and focus at the level of the individual brain or person, you find that the differences, regardless of their origins, usually “mix up” rather than “add up.” (The reason for this mixing-up of characteristics is that the genetic and hormonal effects of sex on brain and behavior depend on, and interact with, many other factors.) This yields many types of brain and behavior, which neither fall into a “male” and a “female” type, nor line up tidily along a male-female continuum.
The claim that science tells us that the possibility of greater merging of gender roles is unlikely because of “natural” differences between the sexes, focuses on average sex differences in the population — often in combination with the implicit assumption that whatever we think men are “more” of, is what is most valuable for male-dominated roles. (Why else would organizations offer confidence workshops for women, rather than modesty training for men?) But the world is inhabited by individuals whose unique mosaics of characteristics can’t be predicted on the basis of their sex. So let’s keep working on overcoming gender stereotypes, bias, discrimination, and structural barriers before concluding that sex, despite being a poor guide to our brains and psychological characteristics, is a strong determinant of social structure.

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