Saturday, 18 October 2014

On Male & Female Brain Differences ...

To many liberals honed on the language of equality, evidence of fundamental differences in the architecture of female and male brains can be dealt with in only one way - denial. But at some stage, they are going to have to face the implications of any neuroscientific findings that undermine much of their universalising project.

We have already provided a number of essays on how social reality is constructed but the essence of that reality is that it is a simulacrum, a creation of often a minority of leading persons in order to enable effective communication and to ensure the control and management of resources.

We have looked (elsewhere) at how sense inputs reconstruct objective reality as individual reality and at how no single individual can see the world precisely as another sees it. The conclusion we have drawn is one of mutual toleration within a framework of a culture that is designed to limit exploitation and protect the vulnerable on a broadly democratic basis.

The Problem of Universalism

The question of male/female difference of brain function is important because the universalism that so often denies individuals the rights of dissident self-expression against the social norm is criminally compounded if this difference fails to be recognised where it exists.

By taking two sets that have already been inappropriately normalised as the type of man or the type of woman (to the detriment of particular individuals in both abstract categories) and repositioning them as one abstract category of human, male and female individuals are being even further alienated from their intimate individual natures.

This is not to be construed as a statement against the equality of persons in regard to their rights to make their own choices within their categories or in relation to other categories but only as a statement against the turning of persons into abstractions where the equality is simply the equality of things to be manipulated by 'guardians of values'.

Understanding differences between broad categories is a first step in unravelling the claims of universalism on the path to understanding the differences between all persons and so their equality as persons with free choices rather than as objects of ideology.

The Politics of Sexual Difference

This is politically important. The then-President of Harvard University was lambasted simply for asking the question in 2005 whether innate differences in male and female brains might be a factor in the scarcity of women in scientific fields. He was right to ask the question but not to assert an answer.

It is a legitimate question.To introduce quotas within functional elements in society that do not accord with objective reality (even if that reality may have cultural or social aspects) is asking for social functionality to be diminished. It may place the liberal who asks for quotas, as social engineer, on a par with the creationist in their potentially damaging effect on knowledge.

The questions must be asked but the answers must not be assumed because it is factually true that there are great women scientists (though few) just as there are men who cannot count beyond ten. The reasons why this is so should be uncovered before blundering in with short term solutions that damage the very enterprise of science itself. The issue may not be one of ability but of will - will to be a scientist perhaps.

This applies across society and across categories. We need to understand difference and then build a society in which difference has no meaning in relation to fundamental equality - which is the equality of autonomy between free individuals rather than the equality of categories manipulated by their leadership cadres.

Culture and Nature

Let us be clear - there is no evidence at all that brain difference is linked to any intellectual ability that should stop women from becoming scientists if they so choose so the issue may be one of certain ideologues trying to demand that women make choices that they do not wish to make and then getting angry at their 'failure' to fit the model as much as one of some claimed patriarchal denial of the right of women to be scientists.

Difference may lay partly in genuine economic or social disadvantage (i.e. blocks to free choice) or it may lie in free choice itself (in which case, it is no-one's business but that of the woman herself). She does not have to become anything she does not wish to be, especially something implicitly dictated by an ideological feminist.

The modern liberal mind seems unable to draw this distinction, one which leads (in this author's view) to a commitment to a socialism of enablement and a libertarianism of uptake that works against the ideology of the middle class progressive who is obsessed with avoiding the serious investment required in social change whilst imposing his or her own values on others.

But let us return to the science - where are men and women really different and what may this mean? The answers are vital medically because, as in issues of race, inheritance does have meaning in disorders of the body and the mind and, if we do not understand these differences, we cannot cure them.

The Revolution in Understanding Difference

If brains are different, then perception and use of language may be different. This means that the very structure of research and experimentation in the social sciences will need to take account of these differences even before research starts.

The revolution in understanding male and female brain differences is very recent. It is no accident that the world of the baby-boomers who are like a sclerotic dead weight on our culture had an academic view that restricted sexual difference to reproduction and mating - and so the brain bits related to sex were judged the only points of difference.

Any liberal of a certain generation with a smattering of scientific education would have assumed, without further enquiry, that males and females were different only in their sex hormones and hypothalamus. The fact that observable human behaviour day-to-day suggested otherwise was put down to culture, not entirely without reason but not entirely with reason either.

All this has been overturned very recently - so recently that the world-views of someone under thirty and over thirty may be be radically different. A conceptual revolution is taking place where the dead weight of the past may culturally inhibit the revolutionary changes required to progress. A conflict expressed perhaps in the war between feminist generations as much as anywhere.

Where Differences Lie

There are now demonstrable differences in many areas of cognition and behaviour - memory, emotion, vision, hearing, the processing of faces and responses to stress hormones and across the brain, far beyond the hypothalamus.

Given that we construct the world through the management of sensory inputs, any differences in mind management techniques and sensory input imply qualitative differences in how men and women construct their reality. Here are some of the findings:-
  •     parts of the frontal cortex (basis for many higher cognitive functions) are bulkier in women than men
  •     parts of the limbic cortex (involved in emotional responses) are bulkier in women than men
  •     parts of the parietal cortex (involved in space perception) are bulkier in men than women
  •     the amygdala (which responds to emotionally arising information) is bigger in men than women
The existence of these discrepancies (which, of course, do not relate to particular individuals but to the bulk of persons in a category who are identifiable as being in that category) is a sign (based on experience with other animals) of difference in function - brains are working differently. What this means beyond the crude fact is up for grabs.

Differences also exists at the cellular level. Women have a greater density of neurons in the parts of the temporal lobe cortex associated with language processing and understanding. Similar findings have been made in the frontal lobe. What this means (perhaps nothing) is also not yet clear but it may have a great deal to do with enhanced female verbal fluency - or it may not.

This fact of difference (if not the meaning of difference) is all just common sense and it is amazing that it has taken so long to sweep away ideological presuppositions and think about what we are as biological entities. Sex hormones affect the fetal brain so if sex hormones were recognised as a cause of difference as early as the 1960s, then other effects should have been expected.

The Thorny Question of Toys

The latest thinking is quite clearly that sex differences in cognition are not just cultural and do not result from later hormonal changes in puberty but owe something to these sex hormones and are present from birth. To a degree, men and women think a little differently even before they are born. Again, common sense to any non-ideological mother.

The obvious bone of contention has been the way children choose toys in a sexually dimorphic way, with saddened liberal mothers unable to get their daughters weaned off Barbie or their sons from guns. They have been wasting their time. Even monkey kids choose the same type of gender-specific toys.

What is going on - male toys are things that are propelled through space (cars) or involve rough and tumble play whereas female toys are centred on nurturing. This much is in accord with otherwise over-egged behavioural psychology.

To bend the child away from these instincts is to try to drive brain plasticity from outside - an aggressive approach to acculturation that might be feasible, much as the Soviet theory of the New Man was theoretically cogent, but is asking for trouble with most kids in most situations.

Babies, Faces & Anxiety

One year old girls spend more time looking at their mothers than their male equivalents who prefer film of cars rather than film of faces. Hollywood budgets are built on these differences. When extended back to one day old children, still we apparently find that girls prefer faces to mechanical objects and vice versa for boys. That's day one of existence if true ...

Differences are also clear in how the sexes react to the environment and stress, a material political fact in itself. There are indications (in experiments unrepeatable in humans for ethical reasons) that separation anxiety has different effects in young males and females which may help to explain why anxiety disorders may be more common in girls than boys.

The difference in size of the hippocampus (memory storage and spatial mapping) also appears to be relevant. Men appear to navigate by 'dead reckoning' (estimating distances in space and orientation) while women navigate by landmark. This again is observable in daily life and in rats, so it seems to be in-built in mammalian sexual difference.


Although the experiments are done with rats and not humans, females seem to increase neuronal connections in a highly stimulated environment and this is linked to memory formation. Complexity seems to have no effect or the opposite effect on males - they start to forget, perhaps to trim the sensory inputs that they cannot cope with.

However, if a complex but stable environment (with many persons involved) enhances the life of female rats but slightly troubles the male rat, the opposite takes place when stress is induced into the picture - and this accords with everyday observation to a degree.

Male rats learn better if stressed but stress has the opposite effect on female rats. On the other hand, female rats are better at dealing with chronic stress than male rats whereas female rats suffer more from acute stress. Rats are not humans but intuitively we can see two possible social conclusions straight away:-
  • A society of men and women must be sufficiently stable and complex with many personal interactions to keep women happy but men need to escape periodically or they become dulled, stressed and unhappy: this seems intuitively correct;
  • Teaching boys requires very different approaches to teaching girls - optimal learning requirements are different for the sexes: again, intuitively, this seems right.
Memory is another area of difference where ethical guidelines permit the scientists to move from rats back to humans. There are hemispheric differences in processing emotional difference in responding to stressful events that suggest that the sexes require different approaches to dealing with trauma.

Medical & Social Considerations

Depression also looks as if it should be considered differently in men and women. Men, generally, produce serotonin at levels 52% higher than women. This may be a factor in increased incidence of depression amongst women. Findings on addiction suggest that women can become dependent, on stimulants in particular, more easily than men. We do not present all this as fact but as possibilities - not to be evaded or avoided for ideological reasons but investigated.

There are also (apparently) differences underlying schizophrenia which are currently poorly understood but the point has been made - overall, biological sexual difference is becoming important in understanding the treatment of medical disorders of the brain and, I contend, is becoming a relevant factor in social and political policy as well without in any way diminishing the fundamental human equality which is now accepted as a value in a modern liberal society.

The sensible approach remains one based on the equality of individuals as rounded persons (rather than as universal abstracts) but, within this, the recognition of sexual difference suggests a true equality between males in general and females in general which takes account of their separable nature. We may go further and say that the equality of individuals is not in the least compromised by recognising any form of difference, including age, ethnicity, interests or whatever is simply different.

To force a little boy into playing with a doll for ideological reasons is as oppressive as placing a teenage girl under high achiever stress in a mixed school. To force a male into the chronic misery of a large communitarian household without escape or authority is as cruel as to deprive a woman of extended society and intellectual stimulation.

Some Tentative Political Conclusions

A 'liberal' society that is built around turning a few women into male-type leaders and suppressing the risk-taking and experimentation of males is not a liberal but an oppressive society, as oppressive as one that treats women as second-class citizens and deprives of them of full access to education and their fair share of resources.

And it is important to understand that there is no 'normal', average or typical type of person but only massive variation within a general type of difference so there will always be the man who is more like most women in some aspect than some women and vice versa.

The point is that, in treating persons as individuals, the differences do not matter but the differences do need to be understood when generalising into public policy that is (as a fundamental value) fair to all individuals. Identity politics, for example, is a negation of difference but politics that enable notionally 'normal' male or female behaviour to flourish (even if some men flourish undertaking female modes and some women male modes) is getting closer to a truly liberatory political culture. 

[This posting owes its science to the neuroscientist Larry Cahill's article 'His Brain, Her Brain' in Scientific American but the social and political conclusions are entirely my own]

No comments:

Post a Comment