Apr 3 2010

The Male Brain – see how you like it…

Men! Ha! Aren't they stupid!

So, men eh? Always thinking about sex, leer at women, lie, can’t communicate, fall asleep after sex – you’re all the same and it’s hardwired into your brain. It’s like the punchlines from those dull, unfunny ’10 Jokes About Men!!’ emails I get forwarded every-so-often (and then think less of the person who sent it to me). But this is all coming from Dr Louann Brizendine in her new book ‘The Male Brain‘.

This book looks like the perfect example of how lazy, boring gender stereotyping harms men as well as women. Dr Brizendine already targeted women in the imaginately titled ‘The Female Brain‘ back in 2006 where she wrongly claimed that women use an average of 20,000 words a day compared with only 7,000 for men (link to a funny article from The Guardian on this). Indeed, she removed this claim from the paperback version after the journal Nature said that she had failed “to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance”. So its not looking good.

First up, I haven’t read the book and am not sure whether I’m really prepared to stump up £12.99 to read it and, importantly, check out her sources. On the otherhand, I don’t have much of a life…

However, on the basis of what I can glean from the articles about the book (which obviously contain no references), it seems like ‘men’ are portrayed somewhere between an Andy Capp cartoon and a vile concoction from the minds of Loose Women (for Americans; this is like The View but the co-hosts are replaced with all-female gnashing, orange cruise-ship singers and Fox News pundits).

This is probably the most telling two sentences from The Times piece:

“[Brizendine] a US talk-show regular, draws her sweeping conclusions from a wide array of scientific data as well as her 25-year experience as a practising psychiatrist. To make her book palatable for the non-scientific reader she mixes established scientific fact with more recent untested theories.”

And there in lies the problem. Fact mixed in with some bullshit.

I have no doubt that there is variation between male and female brains. At the very least females menstruate and estrogen is critically involved in the sexual differentiation of the brain. The problem I have is the massive, culturally-blind leap that is made from differences in brain morphology and neurochemistry and men shouting while they’re driving or leering at women in public.

This very interesting review study in Biological Psychiatry, looks at sex differences in brain structure, function and chemistry and finds that there are many simiarities but significant differences including regional differences, blood flow and hormone receptors. The significance of these differences is in the treatment of disorders NOT shopping traits:

“These sex-specific differences in the healthy brain highlight the need to evaluate sex differences in neuropsychiatric disorders especially those that differ in prevalence and symptoms between men and women.”

Therefore, it is important to understand sex differences in the brain in order to understand neuropsychiatric disorders better while, as the paper states, taking into account genetic and environmental influences.

But more than anything, I really hope that any self-respecting man reading these articles is dismayed. Those that can communicate, aren’t violent and aren’t ‘pervs’ (according to The Times of India) do exist. I’ve met them. Moreover, I am more than a little unsettled when supposed ‘male’ behaviour is very familiar to me such as when someone tells you they have a problem you try and come up with a solution. Surely that’s just rational?

Also the heady mix of fact and bullshit leads to terrible reporting in the press and headlines such as: ‘Why your man will NEVER understand how you feel‘ and ‘Men Fib, Cheat and are Obsessed with Sex‘. Really not particularly helpful and very far from scientific.

Dec 6 2009

We are all pretty WEIRD

I have written before about my disdain for a lot of the pop psychology reported in the press *cough Oliver James*. I am sure that this does not represent a lot of the real research that goes on within the discipline but there does seem to be some fundamental problems within psychology that a few academics are finally shining a light on.

These fundamental problems include the lack of empiricism within the discipline (OK, fancy way of saying you’re making it up) which then feeds into implicit universal assumptions about human behaviour.

The problem with the lack of empiricism in psychology has been approached by Boon and Gozna in an article in The Psychologist which is a broad take on the subject and compares the disciple to other sciences.

observation1But I was also struck by how much psychological research is based on WEIRD subjects.

And by weird, I mean Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). A fairly recent paper in Behavioural and Brain Sciences (pdf) looked at how behavioural scientists routinely publish broad claims about human behaviour and psychology based entirely on people called Dave and Sarah who live in places like Tufnell Park and Happy Harbor (OK, that one’s where the Justice League hang out) and then assume that they are “standard subjects”*.

*These assumptions are not always made explicit but are often implicitly implied in the article headings and are certainly routinely translated into universal truths by the mainstream media.

The paper compares datasets from different populations and finds that not only is there variation but that WEIRD subjects are also particularly unusual compared to the rest of the species and are frequent outliers.

This has huge implications for the bad science reporting on gender and race.

To be fair I do think the public have a responsibility to think for themselves once in a while and ask themselves one simple question when confronted with a headline such as “Shopping styles of men and women all down to evolution, claim scientists” (don’t worry I’m coming back to this little corker later) and that question should be:

“Is it likely that this is true for all or half of the world’s population?”

It’s a simple question, not that taxing. But if it seems abstract then lets break it down into manageable bite-size chunks:

a) Is this likely to be true for all** females/males that I know?

b) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in this country regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

c) Is it likely to be true for all** females/males in all nations, cultures, environments, and geo-political regions regardless of age, ethnicity, education, intelligence, disability status, social class or background?

**I’ll even allow for a statistically significant majority here.

If your answer to these questions is ‘Yes, [X] is likely to be true for half the world’s population’ then I’m afraid you lack of the facility of rational thought. I suggest you become a homeopath.

Some interesting points from the Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan paper:

  • A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of Psychology from 2003-2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and 96% of subjects were from Western industrialised countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett, 2008) reflecting the academics country of residence.
  • This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population.
  • And a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

I was particularly interested in the section on spatial cognition because I mostly use my catchphrase ‘Oh, fuck off’, when reading about women not being able to read maps. The authors point to the variation in linguistic tools between societies:

Human societies vary in their linguistic tools for, and cultural practices associated with, representing and communicating (1) directions in physical space, (2) the color spectrum, and (3) integer amounts. There is some evidence that each of these differences in cultural content may influence some aspects of nonlinguistic cognitive processes (D’Andrade, 1995; Gordon, 2005; Kay, 2005; Levinson, 2003; Roberson, Davies, & Davidoff, 2000). Here we focus on spatial cognition, for which the evidence is most provocative. As above, it appears that industrialized societies are at the extreme end of the continuum in spatial cognition. Human populations show differences in how they think about spatial orientation and deal with directions, and these differences may be influenced by linguistically-based spatial reference systems.

So spatial cognition may be influenced by linguistic tools, or indeed may be influenced by other factors, but the fact that our research is using such a narrow and biased sample, the conclusions can at best be highly contextualised and at worst hugely flawed.

So if you come across an article saying women can’t read maps because of humans’ hunter-gatherer past (because of course it is always, always because of our hunter-gatherer past), it might be worth considering that other human populations don’t actually use A-Zs or EVEN Googlemaps and indeed wouldn’t describe directions in the same way as those in industrialised societies. So its unlikely that women, half the world’s population, are teh stupids and get themselves all in a tizzy when they have to get themselves somewhere.

I won’t go into the whole article, but it is fascinating so do check it out unfortunately some of their key references are behind a paywall. Grrrr.

Aug 2 2009

How to get your project in the news around the world: say that women are a bit crap at something

[Hunter from Neverwhere. Female]

This is one of the worst articles on gender and brains I’ve seen in a long time. A piece was written by an AFP agency journalist, has been cut n’ pasted into news sites across the globe. As far as I can tell, its only appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, but has made it to Russia, India, Spain, Australia, Japan and Playboy (and many many more).

It is a terribly written article about a yet-unpublished paper on a study of 48 people by an A Level teacher.

Now, I’m not being dismissive about the researcher from Hammersmith and West London College, but this study has got more coverage than most research from the most eminent professors in the country.

The article gives the impression that men are better at judging distances than women and that this is because of our hunter-gatherer past. Men would hunt and therefore have to throw spears long distances, women would gather berries and whatnot at close quarters. (And yes before all the archaeologists and anthropologists start jumping up and down on me, I know this is simplistic rubbish too, but that’s another story).

Firstly, men being better at judging distances than women wasn’t really the finding of the ‘paper’ (i.e. what was contained in the abstract of the yet to be published paper). The article in fact contradicts itself internally:

Men were more accurate than women when the target was placed far away at a distance of 100cm.

And then

In a second study, volunteers were asked to carry out the same tasks using a stick rather than a laser pointer. This time women were significantly better than men at judging both distances.

Secondly, this is a study of just 48 people (24 men, 24 women) presumably from one locality (probably Hammersmith or West London) and unlikely to have been controlled for other factors (age, occupation, experience of archery etc). But I don’t know, and nor does anyone else, because the paper hasn’t been published.

Thirdly, in a study about spacial awareness, comparing abilities over 50cms to 1m is fair enough. To define it as hand-reach (near space) and beyond hand-reach (far space) is clear. But leap from 1 metre being called ‘far space’ to the distance over which a ‘hunter’ would throw a spear at a mammoth, is more than a little ridiculous.

Fourthly, as a psychology experiment on visomotor performance why is there an urge to link this randomly and in an ill-informed way to primitive human society and evolutionary biology?

But lastly, this is an experiment conducted at a further education college which is about to be published in the Journal of Psychology. My problem is not with Stancey, seriously well done (as long as you take from this experience the media manipulation of science and how best to give comment to a journalist).

My problem is with a media that doesn’t check its facts, that doesn’t do anything but cut n’ paste a poorly written article into their newspaper. Stancey is quoted as “Psychologist Helen Stancey, from Hammersmith and West London College”. Googling Hammersmith and West London College you realise it is a further education college that runs A Levels, BTECs and the like.

So how does this happen? We live in a world of lazy gender stereotypes: women can’t read maps, men take risks, girls like pink etc. When ‘science’ journalists come across a crappy story about women not being able to judge distances (which cognitively signifies women not being able to drive/play sports/walk past a shoe shop…) because they ‘were gatherers’, it makes culturally sense to us. Not scientific sense, but it fits in with society’s general assumptions, stereotypes and bullshit common-sense.

This is why I think these kinds of reports are so damaging, they serve as the wallpaper of patriarchy. The constant mundane assumptions about male and female differences that support gender inequality.

And for the record, I’m a dab hand at archery.

Feb 19 2009

I Can Smell Your Brains

Now of course I’m the first to criticise men. Horrid, despicable men. And I agree that there is a huge problem with the sexual objectification of women which feeds inequality, discrimination and ultimately violence. Yawn, heard it.

However, even I’m not convinced that a brain scan can show that men think of women in the same way as “tools, like spanners and screwdrivers” (note confusion in above pic). Bad science, possibly but definitely badly reported.

Now I’ve criticised psychologists before. And we must remember that a psychologist is neither a radiologist nor a neuroscientist. But it does seem that they are making the fairly unremarkable claim that “When there are sexualised images in the workplace, it’s hard for people not to think about their female colleagues in those terms.”

So yes, girly calendars in the office are inappropriate and are a key signifier of a sexist culture. But there being a “screwdriver” part of a man’s brain? Even I wouldn’t go that far.

Jul 17 2008

Journalist’s brains different from the rest of the population SHOCKA!

As if by magic, another men and women have different brains nonsense story in the Scotsman. What is even more nonsense is that its being reported as ‘news’ with ‘new research’ when it is ancient and consistently badly reported.

“For a long time it was thought that the basic architecture of the brain was the same in both sexes, with behavioural differences between men and women put down to hormones and social pressures.”

No. We have know for a long time that the ‘architecture’ of male and female brains is different because of their different biological functions. Female brains have to deal with menstruation, pregnancy and child-birth, not unreasonable to think that this may lead to variation.

I don’t have a problem with the research itself which is about male and female reactions to pain and pain treatment. What I do object to is the infantile reporting and surprise at age-old lame assumptions:

“Meanwhile, other studies have found that the hippocampus, which is involved in short-term memory and spatial navigation, is proportionally larger in women than in men, which may come as a surprise given women’s reputation as poor map-readers.”

Could it be because its bollocks?

If you want to read about SCIENCE, read the original article in the New Scientist NOT in the press.

I get annoyed by this subject because I am regularly accused of having a ‘male’ brain. Given that I am a woman, look like a woman, do not have gender dysmorphia and have all the working bits and pieces I think its fair to say I have a woman’s brain m’lord. And those things that you think are ‘male’ such as remembering things in lists, reading maps and having a fixation with ordering my CD collection might be possible within a ‘woman’s brain’ in a woman’s body despite a society that tries to assign gender roles right down to my CD collection.

Lame. Lame. Lame. And bad science.