New insights into gendered brain wiring, or a perfect case study in neurosexism?

By Cordelia Fine, University of Melbourne

The latest neuroscience study of sex differences to hit the popular press has inspired some familiar headlines. The Independent, for example, proclaims that:

The hardwired difference between male and female brains could explain why men are “better at map reading” (And why women are “better at remembering a conversation”).

The study in question, published in PNAS, used a technology called diffusion tensor imaging to model the structural connectivity of the brains of nearly a thousand young people, ranging in age from eight to 22.

It reports greater connectivity within the hemispheres in males, but greater connnectivity between the hemispheres in females. These findings, the authors conclude in their scientific paper,

suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.

One important possibility the authors don’t consider is that their results have more to do with brain size than brain sex. Male brains are, on average, larger than females and a large brain is not simply a smaller brain scaled up.

Larger brains create different sorts of engineering problems and so – to minimise energy demands, wiring costs, and communication times – there may physical reasons for different arrangements in differently sized brains. The results may reflect the different wiring solutions of larger versus smaller brains, rather than sex differences per se.

But also, popular references to women’s brains being designed for social skills and remembering conversations, or male brains for map reading, are utterly misleading.

In an larger earlier study (from which the participants of the PNAS study were a subset), the same research team compellingly demonstrated that the sex differences in the psychological skills they measured – executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition – are almost all trivially small.

Biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability. Karel Seidl

To give a sense of the huge overlap in behaviour between males and females, of the twenty-six possible comparisons, eleven sex differences were either non-existent, or so small that if you were to select a boy and girl at random and compare their scores on a task, the “right” sex would be superior less than 53% of the time.

Even the much-vaunted female advantage in social cognition, and male advantage in spatial processing, was so modest that a randomly chosen boy would outscore a randomly chosen girl on social cognition – and the girl would outscore the boy on spatial processing – over 40% of the time.

As for map-reading and remembering conversations, these weren’t measured at all.

Yet the authors describe these differences as “pronounced” and as reflecting “behavioural complementarity” – scientific jargon-speak for “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”. Rather than drawing on their impressively rich data-set to empirically test questions about how brain connectivity characteristics relate to behaviour, the authors instead offer untested stereotype-based speculation. Even though, with such considerable overlap in male/female distributions, biological sex is a dismal guide to psychological ability.

Also missing from the study is any mention of experience-dependent brain plasticity. Why?

As prominent feminist neuroscientists have noted, the social phenomenon of gender means that a person’s biological sex has a significant impact on the experiences (including social, material, physical, and mental) she or he encounters which will, in turn, leave neurological traces.

Yet the researchers do not pay any attention to the gendered experiences (such as hobbies, subjects studied at school or higher education, or participation in sporting activities) of the young males and females in their sample.

This absence has two consequences. First, the researchers miss an opportunity to investigate whether gendered experiences might influence brain development and enhance the acquisition of important skills valuable to all. The second consequence is that, by failing to look at gendered social influences, the authors guarantee that no data will be produced that challenge the notion of “hardwired” male/female neural signatures.

These characteristics of the PNAS study are very common in neuroscientific investigations of male/female sex differences, and represent two important ways in which scientific research can be subtly “neurosexist”, reinforcing and legitimating gender stereotypes in ways that are not scientifically justified. And, when researchers are “blinded” by sex, they can overlook potentially informative research strategies.

The study did not find evidence that women’s brain wiring was linked to their ability to nurture. Flickr/shootingjaydred

Returning to the popular representations, we can now see a striking disconnect with the actual data. The research provides strong evidence for behavioural similarities between the sexes. It provides no evidence that those modest behavioural sex differences are associated with brain connectivity differences. And, it offers no information about the developmental origins of either behavioural or brain differences.

Yet, the popular press presents it as evidence that “hardwired” sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus. While this is tediously predictable, what is more surprising is for a study author to push along such misinterpretations, claiming to have found evidence for “hardwired” sex differences, and suggesting that this might explain behavioural sex differences not actually measured in the study, such as in “intuition” skills “linked with being good mothers”.

In the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, co-authors Rebecca Jordan-Young, Anelis Kaiser and Gina Rippon and I argued that scientists investigating sex differences have a responsibility to realise “how social assumptions influence their research and, indeed, public understanding of it.” We then called on scientists working in this area to:

recognise that there are important and exciting opportunities to change these social assumptions through rigorous, reflective scientific inquiry and debate.

The continuing importance of this message is only reinforced by this latest case study in how easily scientific “neurosexism” can, with a little stereotype-inspired imagination, contribute to inaccurate and harmful lay misunderstanding of what neuroscience tells us about the sexes.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Research Paper Assignment

Project Description

The focus of this project is the production of genuine research on the topics of the course. To that end, we will focus on developing your research process and constitute the classroom as a professional community of researchers.

Your paper should address some key feature of the debates and figures discussed throughout the course. In the spirit of the interdisciplinary nature of our graduate programs, you can approach this topic from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, so long as the core interest is the role of values in science, technology, or medicine. It is my hope that your paper will also contribute to your own larger set of interests as part of your graduate program while constituting a serious engagement with one or more the issues discussed in the course. The ideal outcome is to produce a paper approaching publishable quality that can then be used as the basis for a publication, or as the basis of a dissertation proposal or chapter, a master’s thesis, or a portfolio paper.

Research Materials

In addition to turning in a finished paper at the end of the semester, you will be asked to compile a dossier of the research materials collected to produce the paper. This will include a topic proposal and refinements of the topic into a description of the research question; a full, annotated bibliography of relevant sources; photocopies or downloads of sources (preferably in PDF format); records of library and database searches; reading notes; records of your own thoughts (outlines, results of free writing, etc.).

This part of your project will be assessed separately from the paper itself, along three criteria: (1) Quantity and quality of useful information in your dossier. (2) Effort – demonstration of the effort that went into your research, whether or not it produced useful materials (i.e., you get credit for demonstrating the dead ends and seemingly “wasted” effort that you can account for). (3) Presentation – Is the information in the dossier organized and presented so as to make it easy to use in the future by someone who takes up and continues your project. (See below.)

Future Fate of the Project

This course is the first stage of an educational experiment, inspired by a similar experiment by Hasok Chang. The goal is to create an ongoing community of professional researchers in the classroom. In subsequent iterations of this course, students will inherit the work that you produce, improve it and add to it until publishable materials are produced.

If you agree to have your work included in subsequent stages of the process, you will receive authorship credit for the final project commensurate with your contribution to the project. I will do my honest best to consult with you on the final version, prior to any sort of publication.

Online Publication

The materials in your research dossier will be kept private, shared only (by your agreement) with students who choose to take up your project in the future. It is, however, becoming very common for academics to publish working drafts of their scholarship online, to facilitate a more rapid exchange of ideas. As such, final papers from this class meeting a certain standard of quality will be eligible to be published as part of a series of “Values in Science Working Papers” in an online repository. “Working Papers” are not official publications and so will not interfere with use in dissertations, future publications, etc. (Papers will only be so published by your agreement.)

Suggested Topics

All papers must address some element of the relationship between values/ethics/politics and science/technology/medicine. I conceive of papers falling into a few broad categories, and I suggest several specific topics below.

    1. Historical Analysis: These papers will create a case history in the history of science or technology and analyze the role of values in that case. E.g.,
      1. The role of values in systems of psychology
      2. Racism in the design of NYC overpasses
      3. The effect of the Cold War on mid-century economic theory.
    2. Contemporary criticism: Much like historical analyses, critical case studies look in detail at a particular case of scientific or technology, but focus on recent or ongoing developments with an eye to improving practice.
      1. Incorporating values into evidence-based medicine.
      2. Gender bias in website design
      3. The democratic potential of social media
    1. Interpretative/Exegetical: These papers focus on some philosophical project, view, or argument and attempt to explain it more clearly, and sometimes to stretch the bounds of the view. E.g.,
      1. The influence of Heidegger on Marcuse
      2. Applying Dewey’s critique of technology to emerging media
      3. The philosophical roots of Morozov’s critique of the Internet
    2. Argumentative: An argumentative paper takes up a live philosophical issue and contributes an argument about the issue, either by attempt to critique the view of another philosopher, or to defend a more original view. E.g.,
      1. A defense of the inductive risk approach to values in science
      2. Feminist standpoint theory and the critique of technology
      3. Why a new god won’t save us: A critique of Heidegger
    1. Literary Studies of Science: Such a paper would engage in a literary analysis of some scientific text with an eye to the role of values in that work, or would analyze some fictional work that has something interesting to say about it.
      1. Signs of sexism in Watson’s The Double Helix
      2. The Politics of Darwin’s The Descent of Man
      3. Science, Values, and Politics in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital Trilogy
    2. If you have any other ideas, run them by me before submitting a proposal.


Project Milestones

  • Week 4
    • Receive this document
  • Week 6
    • Paper Proposals Due
    • Describes your project idea in a full paragraph (complete sentences) of 250 words max. You may submit two.
  • Week 6-8
    • Consultation w/ Professor
    • Schedule an appointment to meet with me in person to discuss your project topic.
  • Week 10
    • Annotated Bibliography Due
    • Each entry should include full bibliographic details (Chicago/Turabian format) and two paragraphs – one that summarizes the content of the text, one that evaluates the text and relates it to your project.
    • 4-6+ entries. For projects where both “primary” and “secondary” sources are relevant, you should have at least one of each.
  • Week 12
    • Abstract due
    • Summary of your argument in a full paragraph (complete sentences) of 250 words max.
  • Week 13
    • Conceptual outline due
    • Section headings and complete sentences only. Two pages, one or two columns per page. 9 point font minimum. See “Mumford Method” for an example of a good conceptual outline.
  • Week 14-15
    • Share full draft (suggested)
    • This is an out of class recommended activity. Pick at least one partner in the class and swap drafts to get feedback.
  • Finals Week
    • Final draft & dossier due

Research Reports Schedule

  • Group 1: Field, Hardee, Henderson, Jones, Lilly, Massey
  • Group 2: Cline, Fountain, Johnson, Lyons, Nightingale, Purcell, Zuber
  • Group 3: Ester, Lee, Papin, Ritchey, Saunders, Tang

  • Preliminary Report 1
    • Group 1: Week 6
    • Group 2: Week 7
    • Group 3: Week 8
  • Preliminary Report 2
    • Group 1: Week 10
    • Group 2: Week 11
    • Group 3: Week 12
  • Preliminary Report 3
    • Group 1: Week 13
    • Group 2: Week 15
    • Group 3: Week 16
  • Final Report
    • Final Exam Week

Service-Learning Project: Socially Responsible Science and Technology

(Undergraduate section only.)

The purpose of this project is to promote socially responsible science and technology, i.e., social responsibility in scientific research research, in communication, public understanding, or application of science, or in the invention, development, use, or dissemination of technology. While the decision about how to understand social responsibility and how best to promote it is up to you, that decision must be formed in dialogue with ideas from the course about why and how values and ethical considerations enter into science and technology. Your project must in some sense be a public intervention – it is not for my eyes alone nor only for your classmates, but should engage wider communities. The goal is to have a genuine positive impact.

This will be a group project, with groups of between 2 and 4 students.

Project Components

  1. Background research – Your project must be informed by research on the area of science or technology in question. You will submit an annotated bibliography of this research in the early stages of the project. (Group)
  2. Intervention – a public object, event, or activity that promotes socially responsible science or technology. (Group)
  3. Documentation of the project – in many cases, your project won’t be something you can directly turn in. This can be as simple as a link to a website or as complex as video and photographic evidence of an event. Please provide documentation not only of the final product but also some documentation of the production process itself. This is the main way I can gauge the effort involved in the project. (Group)
  4. In-class presentation – During finals week, you will present a summary of what you did, an explanation of the theoretical background, and an assessment of the practical successes and difficulties. (Group)
  5. Reflection paper – In this paper, you will (A) present an argument for staging your intervention based on philosophical theories and background research, (B) describe the actual experience of the intervention, (C) reflect on the effectiveness of the project and consider ways it could be improved or could have been more effective. 5000 words maximum.

Standards of Evaluation

The main project will be evaluated on the following criteria:

  1. Effort – This is the major part of the class, and you need to show commensurate effort. It is to your benefit to document some of what went into the production process in this regard.
  2. Informedness – Your intervention should be informed (a) by theoretical grounding in the texts from the class that discuss the nature and processes of technology and the role of ethical and political considerations therein, and (b) by research into the practical issue you hope to address.
  3. Effectiveness – Your project is not just an academic exercise, but an attempt to make some positive contribution to the issue you address. You need to demonstrate and reflect upon the effectiveness of your project in ameliorating the problem. It is to your benefit to include reflections not only on your successes but also on your difficulties and failings, insofar as you also talk about how to close the loop, i.e., how one might overcome those difficulties in the future.
  4. Creativity – Your project should ideally not just be more of the same that is already being done in the area, but a novel, creative, innovative approach based on knowledge gained and your group’s distinctive abilities.

Your individual reflection papers will also be evaluated on the quality of your argumentation and communication, how well you rely on published sources, and how convincing your reflections about effectiveness are.

Project Milestones:

  1. Group Formation – Due week 4
  2. Brainstorming and Project Proposals – Due week 5
  3. Consultation – Before Spring Break
  4. Annotated bibliography – Due week 10
  5. Reflection papers and documentation – Due week 16
  6. Presentations – During Final Exam period

Project Examples

  • Public awareness campaign about unintentional wastes of electricity.
  • Websites or YouTube videos informing about water usage or battery recycling.
  • Online community devoted to solutions to help Zimbabweans meet basic needs with sustainable technology.
  • On campus demonstration of implications of multitasking research for, e.g., texting and driving.
  • Door to door information campaigns.
  • Staged on-campus “happenings”

Bonus Point Opportunities

One way to earn more “Citizenship Points” is to attend one of the following four Center for Values events:

  1. Wednesday, January 29, 7:30 PM – Documentary Night: Food, Inc.
  2. Wednesday, February 05, 7:30 PM – Documentary Night: The Perfect Human Diet
  3. Thursday, February 06, 7:30 PM – James Livingston lecture: After Work: Why Full Employment is a Bad Idea, or, What Is To Be Done When Work Disappears?Cancelled due to weather
  4. Wednesday, February 26, 7:30 PM – David Kaplan – What’s Wrong With Food Additives?
  5. Wednesday, April 23, 7:30 PM – Roberta Millstein: Genetically Modified Food: Feeding the World or Fouling the World?
  6. Thursday, April 24, time TBD (morning or lunchtime) – student meetings with Roberta Millstein

All four events take place in the Jonsson Performance Hall.

Procedure for receiving credit: At the door of the Performance Hall, there will be a sign-in sheet. Put your name on the sheet on your way in, and then check in with me before you leave to make sure you’ll receive credit. You must check in both before and after the event.

Assignment: Discussion Questions

Each week, you should turn in two discussion questions (two per week, not two per reading). They should be questions that engage the readings; if there are focus readings (listed in bold), it is preferable though not required that you focus your questions on those readings. The questions should create discussion, not be easy to answer factual questions, nor simple statements of opinion. They should be analytical, critical, or evaluative, i.e., they should try to explore or extend the ideas in the readings in some way.

Due: Every week, 24 hours before class, by email to the professor.

Note: Exceptionally good discussion questions will be awarded Citizenship Points.

Additional Resources