Exploitative Headline Award: My Dissertation!

While I struggle with what may be the toughest nonfiction writing project I have yet attempted, about what I’m doing (or not doing) (or doing in a dreamy, half-assed way, like on a blog) with my dissertation research, this article came along to whet my dormant whistle.



Thanks, dummy headline writers, for making it yet harder for the gender freedom warriors to get any further along on the yellow brick road.

(Plus that religious thing about how brains are “built,” but I want to focus on sex/gender. Not on creationism and our Christian nation.)

Here’s the thing about your brain on sex:

(I should know. I wrote a dissertation on it. What? No, not on neurobiology. Not even really on gender. I wrote on the ways our culture uses science as a crutch to explain away messy human relations creating in the process endless boxes into which we must stuff ourselves. Like the girl or boy box.)

1. The Plasticity of the Brain. A delightful phrase I like to use whenever possible, like in the grocery story, contemplating toaster pastries. It reminds us that what may in fact be biological differences between many men and women are still at least in part social. Because the neural pathways that get used are the pathways that develop.

Connect a little baby’s pink ruffly neural pathways, she’ll start playing house in a few years and you’ll say but wait! When she was three I showed her all kindsa tractor and gun toys! But she just likes her dollies! It’s biological!

It is biological, sir, but it’s not hereditary, genetic, or encoded in her DNA. Necessarily. It’s biological because of the plasticity of the brain: It develops along the paths we build for it.

2. Researchers indeed found differences in the anatomical structure of men’s and women’s brains, as reported in the Atlantic. Of the brains studied, women’s tended to have more connections between hemispheres. Men’s tended to have more connections within a hemisphere.

Which doesn’t explain anything. Because no one really knows either what that causes or what it’s caused by. So we can speculate that, OK, this shows that women use more parts of their brain to solve a complex problem but men use more specialized skills? Or something?

But it’s all hogwash because the brain is still a black squishy box onto which we project our fantasies of a non-squishy world.

And even if it weren’t–even if we know what they meant, these differences in neural pathways, we still would not know why they developed into shapes of rolling pins or firearms, or people skills or high-functioning autism.

This article further simplifies the whole meshugas by saying that there’s one hemisphere for “intuitive thinking” and one for “logic.” Which means the reporter, like many science reporters, is interpreting the findings according to  comfortable narrative. Rather than according to the partial, messy, mysterious results the scientists surely found.

Because women are “intuitive” and men are “logical,” right? Or, according to the article, these anatomical differences mean that women use both “intuition” and “logic.” Because their brains connect the hemispheres more. While men use one or the other?

3. Obviously you can’t pay a scientist who says “we found this thing in the brain but we don’t know what it means!” Even though, more often than not, that’s what neuroscientists find.

And we can’t pay a reporter who says “Um, they found this thing in the brain, but no one knows what it means, including me!”

(For that matter, we can’t pay a copy editor to write an accurate but boring headline about how researchers found anatomical differences in men’s and women’s brains, instead of the sexier one about brains being “built” (by whom?) differently.)

We like stories. We especially like stories about how men and women are different–and if those differences are “biological,” then hot damn! We got ourselves a story! All those pesky feminists in the 70s were wrong! And they make women unhappy, poor, and no fun at all. Science says!

4. If we could let go of our expectations that all people perform gender in specific ways, then perhaps the science would look different too.

If we stop dividing our world into pink and blue, maybe our scientists could see the whole brain without trying to find these pink and blue divisions. Divisions that they already expect without even realizing it, because they’ve been taught them from their first days of life.

Maybe they’d find, you know, three ways for a brain to work. Maybe even four!

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2 thoughts on “Exploitative Headline Award: My Dissertation!

  1. Wow, more than 2 ways to categorize? You maverick!

  2. Inder says:

    Totally agree. I do think there are differences between male and female brains, and some probably exist even before birth, because our hormones are different, and our hormones also help shape neurological pathways. But I also think there are a hellava lot of similarities between male and female brains – far more similarities and differences. And it seems obvious that whatever differences there are, legitimately, we don’t know a lot about what causes them – hormones? or social input? Partly because, as you say, studying the brains of adults doesn’t tell us much about causation. AND that scientists looking at those differences are unable to put aside their beliefs about gender differences enough to truly study them objectively. They know what they are looking for, and so they find it. Just like scientists in the 19th century were so focused on race differences, they found “evidence” to support their biases.

    In the meantime, there are no differences between male and female brains significant enough to merit more than a shrug and a, yeah, there’s probably a few minor differences just like there are obvious physiological differences between men and women, but there are also lots of people who defy those clear categories.

    The seeming obsession with finding biological differences is telling in itself …

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