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The neuroscientist shattering the myth of the gendered brain

Neuroscientist Gina Rippon has been ruffling some feathers with her research that is shattering the myth of the gendered brain.

Her work reveals how brains reflect the life they have lived, not the sex of their owners. And that there is no consistent evidence that shows fundamental differences between the brains of men and women. In other words, there is no such thing as the male or female brain.

Gina Rippon (19360453)
Gina Rippon (19360453)

Apparently this doesn’t always go down well, explains the scientist who will be discussing her book The Gendered Brain at the Festival of Ideas – which is supported by the Cambridge Independent – this Friday.

Prof Rippon says: “There’s nothing which I have found that would allow you to compare two brain images and say, ‘well that’s a man and that’s a woman’. It’s not physically possible to say there is a male or female brain. I have had transgender individuals or individuals wishing to transition asking if we can we scan them – for instance, a man saying can you prove I have a female brain so I have a case for my transition. It doesn’t work at that level. Certain members of the transgender community are made very angry by that.”

She is sympathetic, however, to anyone who feels they don’t fit into a gender stereotype, saying: “I think gender is forced upon people. I think the gender bombardment in the 21st century is much more intense than it used to be if you look at toy marketing, video games and social media, so there is pressure from outside to conform to a particular stereotype.”

A powerful stylised computer processor and circuit link detail placed overlapping a silhouetted male and female side profile placed back to back.. (19369986)
A powerful stylised computer processor and circuit link detail placed overlapping a silhouetted male and female side profile placed back to back.. (19369986)

But she counters that perhaps society is wrong to force people to adhere to certain roles. “If you have a very, very prescriptive list of what being a female means and what being a man means and you think, ‘I feel none of the above’, you might then start to say, ‘well there must be something wrong with me’.

“And this is when people think about changing their biology. They look at the equation and they think ‘sex equals gender and I’m supposedly a biological female, but I feel more like a male, so maybe I need to change my biology’. I think the physical outcome of that is unnecessary.”

Prof Rippon says her research has shown there are no differences between male and female brains that can be reliably proved in repeated experiments. “One scientific paper will find differences in one structure, the next will find differences in another structure but not in the first one. So there is no consistent part of the brain or network we have currently been able to measure that establishes whether a brain is from a man or a woman. That’s the key thing that surprises people because they assume differences are there.”

MRI scans are used in Prof Rippon's research
MRI scans are used in Prof Rippon's research

As professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston Brain Centre, Prof Rippon’s work has found that once any differences in brain size were accounted
for, ‘well-known’ sex differences in key structures disappeared. Men’s brains are around 10 per cent larger than women, on average.

“If you correct for height weight body mass index, then you find the structural differences you think you found will disappear,” she says. “Men also have bigger hearts, livers and kidneys but we don’t currently have a big industry researching that.”

In her new book, The Gendered Brain, she challenges the idea that there are male and female brains, and offers a 21st-century model for better understanding of how brains get to be different. That involves understanding how brains can be affected by the lives they live, the experiences and opportunities they have and the culture around them.

The latest science, she says, shows that brains are ‘plastic’ and develop according to experiences. “If you have an expectation of somebody, what we now know is it will change how the person views themselves, it will change the experiences the world exposes them to, like giving boys and girls different toys to play with, and it will change the attitudes that people have of those individuals.

“The type of games you play will change your brain. We know that from judo and juggling to violin and keyboard playing. By definition, moving the body differently according to the demands of the skill you are acquiring will change the brain. So not playing football will have a direct effect on the brain. But making sure we are doing the right things to stay part of our social group is also an important driver.

“Our brains are gathering the rules of behaviour and if those rules are gendered, then our brains will make us gendered.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some research may find differences, but then you say, ‘have you looked at the education level of those participants, have they been at school for the same amount of time, have you looked at the sports they play or their occupation?’ To which the answer is always ‘no’. So how do you know what you are finding is a sex difference and not an excludence difference.”

MRI brain scan. (19434765)
MRI brain scan. (19434765)

The idea of the gendered brain comes from the 19th century, says Prof Rippon, and it was used to prove the superiority of ‘white, upper class men’ and justify their actions.

“It started what I call ‘the hunt the difference agenda’, where the emerging brain research said here we are with the cultural and social status quo – let’s explain it in terms of our emerging understanding of our brain.

“So they spent a long time twisting themselves into contortions trying to prove the female brain was inferior to the male brain. This intersected with race science as well. So whatever metric they came up with had to determine that white, upper class-educated males were at the top.”

Prof Rippon would like to see something called ‘gender irrelevance’. “People talk about rearing their children gender neutral,” she says. “But I think gender irrelevance is probably the way forward where, OK, biologically you are male or female, but it does not represent the whole story and what we might do in society.”

Visit festivalofideas.cam.ac.uk/

Further events related to women and gender include:

Invisible women: data bias in a world designed for men (Oct 19), author and award-winning campaigner Caroline Criado Perez and Professor Ann Copestake, Head of the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge, discuss whether women are in danger of being excluded by the technology revolution. They reveal how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population, and illustrate the hidden ways in which women are forgotten. In particular, the focus is on AI and the male bias in data that machine learning algorithms are trained on.

Digital violence against women: finding a solution (Oct 23), academic and activist Dr Lilia Giugni discusses the growing and disturbing issue of digital violence against women. As the online world becomes smaller so do the digital safe spaces for women who face abuse and threats of violence from trolls and bullies hidden behind a monitor. Digital violence can happen as a form of revenge porn for women by a partner or ex-partner; women who are dealing with domestic abuse in the home find it continues online; racist abuse is hurled at MPs, and academics have had their lives threatened for expressing an opinion.

Are we all thin enough yet? How the thin ideal conquered the world (26 Oct). Prof. Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University, presents a history of the thin ideal of beauty, showing how this ideal – far from being ‘natural’ – has been shaped by culture, politics and patriarchy.

Women with ideas that changed the world (26 Oct). Do you know who invented the dishwasher, solar panels or the modern bra? Alison Ainley, Anglian Ruskin University, explores examples of women whose ideas changed the world, why it has taken time to recognise them and how their achievements are being celebrated today.

The rising tide: women at Cambridge (Mon-Fri 14 to 25 Oct, Sat 19 & 26 Oct). Exhibition focused on the fight for equal educational rights at Cambridge and the careers of women who shaped the institution and the world.

Creative connections: portraits of women scientists and artists by Anne-Katrin Purkiss (17 Oct). Photographer Anne-Katrin Purkiss shares her experience of photographing female artists and scientists for over 30 years.

These four walls: a secret history of women home-workers (25 & 26 Oct). Created by historian Dr Helen McCarthy and artist Leonora Saunders, this fascinating exhibition highlights the complicated and precarious history for women doing paid work at home. Each image reimagines the life of these women, from the Victorian seamstress and Edwardian chain-maker to the post-war child-minder and late 20th century entrepreneur.

Curating these four walls (25 Oct). The creators of These Four Walls discuss the subject of women working at home.

Check out the programme for more talks at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

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