Sex of the brain: nature vs. nurture

Annie Bruce

In a recent article, ‘Women in Science: I am not the exception’,  O’Brien discusses the issue of whether men are inherently better than women in areas such as maths and science. The article is based on a BBC Horizon episode: ‘Is Your Brain Male or Female’. She argues that, despite some of the evidence saying otherwise, in her experience, women are just as capable as men in the traditionally male dominated areas of STEM, and that it is dangerous to the future of young women to say otherwise. While the feminist inside of me was cheering from the sidelines, the scientist was certainly uncomfortable with the documentary being used as a springboard into an opinion based solely on personal experience. Nevertheless, it certainly piqued my interest, and I felt compelled to watch the documentary to look at the evidence for myself.

From my own personal perspective, I would stand right by O’Brien and, before looking at the evidence, be inclined to believe that men are not intrinsically superior in these areas. So I was really rather intrigued to see the evidence to the contrary. In fact, it was almost disappointing how little of the evidence seemed to counter my experience. The evidence seemed overwhelmingly to support there being very little difference between male and female brains. At this point, it is important to stress that this documentary is far from being a series of rigorous scientific studies, so the conclusions that can be drawn may not tell the whole story. Equally, it is never really sensible to suggest that the question of nature vs. nurture is ever completely one-sided. Taking this into account, I will evaluate the evidence provided in this documentary.

Firstly, it is important to note that, unlike testing on inanimate objects or particles, it is essentially impossibly to standardize any test involving human subjects. In addition to this, it is also not feasible to remove all traces of bias. This is especially true in an area such as this where people often have strong feelings, or at the very least, everyone has their own ideas and experiences. Thus, unsurprisingly, many (if not all) of the experiments that were done were inherently biased in some way.

One test that was done was on men and women of a variety of ages. The test had two parts: one tested visual spatial ability and the other assessed the ability to read emotions from a person’s expression. The results came out as would be expected from gender stereotypes – men performed better at the spatial ability test and women at the emotions. However, this test did nothing to address the nature vs. nurture debate, as by the time people become adults, the effects of environmental bias have already taken place.  Thus this particular experiment was not very useful. What did become interesting about this sort of test was when it was later examined in a different way. Researchers designed another experiment to test visual spatial awareness, but changed the way in which the participant viewed and responded to the given tasks. These results eliminated the gender differences. Further to this, similar experiments were conducted around the world, and it was found that gender differences that would be present in the results in some areas of the globe were not present elsewhere. This strongly suggests that these differences in ability were learned, rather than being intrinsic.

In an attempt to eliminate as much gender bias as possible, experiments were then undertaken on toddlers. The first experiment looked at whether the children would choose to play with traditionally male toys like trucks and diggers or traditionally female toys like dolls and teddies. As might be expected, all the little boys played with the ‘male’ toys and the same with the little girls. However, two further tests highlighted that this preference is perhaps not as innate as it seems. One further test dressed a female toddler up in ‘boys’ clothes and vice versa with a male toddler. An adult was then asked to play with the toddler and see which toys they would choose. However, the adult was unaware that the toddler was not the same gender as they appeared from their clothing. In the tests, the little girl dressed in blue preferred toy cars and the little boy dressed in pink preferred playing with dolls. In addition to this a test was done to see what expectations parents put on their toddlers. Toddlers of similar age, size and crawling ability were to be tested to see how much of a slope they would be able to tackle. The parents were asked to set the gradient of the slope at what they thought their child would be able to handle, and the results showed overwhelmingly that parents set higher expectations of their sons than their daughters. These tests highlight that parents influence their children from the youngest ages, making it extremely difficult to distinguish between environmental factors and genetic factors.

One team of researchers found a novel way to avoid any of these influences of gender stereotypes: they undertook the experiments on monkeys. The toys they used were toy trucks and toys with wheels (the ‘male’ toys) and dolls (the ‘female’ toys.) Interestingly, they did find that the male monkeys preferred the trucks and the female monkeys preferred the dolls. However, the choice of toys was fundamentally biased. Across all species, females have an intuitive instinct to nurture their young, and thus this could be an entirely feasible explanation for these results. While it was an interesting study, it is one that really needs to be repeated, but with different ‘female’ toys.

Finally, the other way of looking at the differences between males and females was done by looking at the brain. One study found that the connections in neurological pathways differed between male and female brains. This study found that women’s brains had better connections between the hemispheres of the brain, while men’s brains had better connections from the back to the front of each hemisphere. This implies that women should be better at things like multitasking and that men should be more able to take what they see and decide on a course of action. However, these finding could not be replicated in children, which demonstrates that these differences are something that are learned, rather than being intrinsic. Another researcher who simply studied the brains of men and women found it extremely difficult to find something that would identify the brain as belonging to a male or a female. In fact, they found greater variation between different groups of males and females than between the sexes. Both of these studies seem to imply that the differences between the brains of men and women are not inherently different.

It appears from the experiments that there is little evidence to suggest that men are naturally better at science and maths than women. In reality, it seems that people are greatly influenced from the very earliest ages. However, many of the tests have shown a difference between men and women. In light of the nature of the environmental influences, it becomes nearly impossible to tell whether these differences come from social influences or whether they are ingrained within the genetic makeup of males and females. However, what is clear is that there is an incredible amount of gender stereotyping placed on men and women across society.

I entirely agree with O’Brien in stating that males and females should not be told that they have any more or less ability in any subject area because of their gender. These ideas can very easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading women to think they are not as capable as men in STEM subjects, thus causing them to shy away from it. In a society where these areas (along with many others ) are so heavily dominated by men, we need to ensure that teachers, parents and all people are not putting their own gender stereotypes about ability upon others.

Sex of the brain: nature vs. nurture

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