Can individual differences tell us more?

Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from an invited talk at the University of Leicester on 3 April.

A book titled The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain is perhaps always likely to stimulate a response. Since publishing it earlier this year, Professor Gina Rippon has been on the receiving end of online abuse and name-calling. She clearly enjoyed opening here with some examples, to gasps and laughs of derision from the packed lecture theatre.

Rippon dedicated the first section of the talk to the efforts of scientists over the last 200 years to explain why women are inferior to men. She argued that these scientists were working backwards, looking for proof that (white upper class) men were superior. The rise of neuroimaging 30 years ago reinvigorated the debate and, again, researchers sought to find the cause of differences between women and men. Despite these efforts, the only reliable finding is that men’s brains are on average 10 per cent larger than women’s brains, a difference which Rippon says disappears when body size is taken into account.

Rippon does not argue that there are categorically no differences between the female and male brain. She argued that all brains are different (a fact to which anyone who has ever conducted neuroimaging research will attest), so to focus on small differences between group averages of female and male brains does not make sense in the context of huge individual differences. Rippon encouraged us to ask why differences appear, and to consider the role of societal norms in shaping the brain. Rippon reminded us of the plastic nature of the brain, arguing that even if there are differences, these should not dictate what individuals can and cannot do. We know that individuals can learn new skills and be trained on tasks that supposedly show gender differences.

For those of us who are fairly up to speed with this research, a particularly interesting part of Rippon’s talk was the questions session at the end. This revealed something about the public perception of research findings in this area. One audience member explained that at a recent workshop with her toddlers, she was told that boys’ brains don’t have connections across the two hemispheres yet, while girls’ brains do. When asked if this was true, Rippon said no, prompting a question about whether or not you could look at a brain scan from birth and determine whether the image is of a girl’s brain or a boy’s brain. Of course the answer was an emphatic ‘no’ from Rippon, but this highlights how misleading media portrayals of research can be when they claim studies show a clear difference.

The final follow-up question was about whether differences between girl-boy siblings are due to gendered brains. Rippon responded that she has two girls who were hugely different from each other growing up, but because they are the same gender nobody would describe those differences in terms of gender.

It seems, then, that there's still a long way to go in convincing the public that differences are small at a group level, while there are enormous differences between individuals, regardless of gender. Could psychologists and neuroscientists do more to inform the public and ensure findings are reported responsibly?

A final important aspect of this research is the possible repercussions for the transgender community. Rippon acknowledged that her words have implications for transgender individuals, many of whom feel that their brain does not match their body. This explanation of their identity may seem undermined by the evidence Rippon presents. Going forward it will surely be crucial to have open conversations with the transgender community, to ensure findings are clearly explained, ensuring individuals feel supported by the psychology and neuroscience communities. It is important that these findings do not lead some to deny the lived experiences of transgender individuals.

Rippon does not argue that we should ignore gender differences. If there are differences, we should find them, she says. This might be particularly important in studying disease; Alzheimer’s, for example, is more prevalent in women. But the key is to discover why these differences occur, considering the environmental context. And finally, why should we focus on gender differences, if examining individual differences across genders may tell us more?

- Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne is Deputy Editor of The Psychologist. 

See also Professor Rippon's 2016 article for us.

The 'How to: Academy' recently hosted a debate between Professor Gina Rippon and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen.

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