Men are from Mars, women are from Venus.
Men are bad at expressing emotion.
Most women are bad at math.
In her new book, Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds, Dr. Gina Rippon tears down everything you think you know about the differences between the way men and women think. She does not argue that there are no structural differences between men and women’s brains, but rather that most research showing sex differences in how we think is inherently flawed, or that the differences they find are actually minimal on average. In other words, if there is a fundamental difference that has a real effect on the way men and women think, we have yet to find it.
Rippon breaks down gendered thought myths quite thoroughly, beginning with the earliest searches for proof of women’s inferior brains (dating back to the 1600s) all the way through modern science’s rationalizations. She includes the study of brain structure, the role of hormones on the brain, and searches for answers in psychology.
She also examines how flawed studies pervade society, such as a 2013 paper purportedly showing that men were better at map reading than women. The paper was quickly denounced by the scientific community for things including failing to control for career choice and education, thereby “ignoring variables other than biological sex which are known to have brain-changing potential.” However, the study was widely publicized in the media anyway, with headlines like, “The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are ‘better at map reading.’” Misinformation like this gives the false impression to the public that “biology is destiny”, or that women have inherently unscientific minds.
This book is a neuroscience expert explaining neurobiology, so if you pick this up you should be prepared for some detailed explanations of studies. Whether you’ll find this book engaging or not depends on your personal interest in hard science – while she includes explanations on everything for the laypeople reading, this very much isn’t a pop science book. However, Rippon livens up the facts with a wry sense of humor, a la Sarah Vowell or Bill Bryson.
For example, to prove the point that mental fatigue and irritability during PMS may actually be a manufactured phenomenon, she notes that when researchers use a “Menstrual Joy Questionnaire” instead of a Menstrual Distress Questionnaire, women report “more positive attitudes towards menstruation than those who had the distress-focussed questionnaire first.” It’s an excellent point about how easy it is to skew study results with bias, but also kind of funny (we in the West often hear about PMS cramps and mood swings, but rarely about “menstrual joy”). In other words, PMS may be a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you believe you will be irritable and irrational, you will be more likely to feel it.
As a side note, the book is full of useful tidbits, such as that when PMS symptoms are studied using less biased methods, scientists found “better emotion recognition accuracy and enhanced emotional memory […] when both oestrogen and progesterone levels were high.” This means that they not only failed to find negative effects for menstruation, but women actually experienced a mood boost during ovulation – a fun fact to throw in a man’s face the next time someone accuses you of being on your period for showing emotion.
Sex-based stereotypes are so entrenched in our society, I fear that many people (read: men) will have a knee-jerk negative reaction to the book. I understand where the disdain comes from. Having your assumed superior place in the world systematically dismantled and questioned, using the very science with which you’ve built yourself a crowning position, must be scary. Only the most logical and unemotional men will be able to hear what Dr. Rippon has to say without immediately dismissing it.
Frighteningly, eminent neurobiologist Simon Baron-Cohen endorsed this review written by neurobiologist Larry Cahill which completely misunderstands and misstates the arguments in Rippon’s book. Dr. Rippon never calls evolution a myth, as Cahill suggests. Saying that her arguments deny evolution suggests he either has such bad reading comprehension he has no business teaching at a college, or that he threw a tantrum based on the title of the book and wrote an entire review on his own presumed superior intelligence without reading it closely.
Far from denying that sex differences may exist, Rippon’s book looks at the effect that cultural conditioning, myths and bias have on our minds, and on scientific studies themselves. The gist of Ripon’s book is that when you start with a belief that sex differences exist in the brain and work backward to prove it, you may end up with flawed and biased results. “Are the hypotheses as objective as possible or do they reflect a stereotypical bias or a relentless search for differences? Are the tasks or tests being used a neutral measure of behavior or temperament or actually a means of stacking the odds in favour of finding the difference being looked for?”
Gender and Our Brains was released August 27th, 2019 by Pantheon. The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.