Saturday, May 22, 2010

Benjamin Radford - How Different Are Male and Female Brains?

Scientific American Mind

This is an interesting article from Benjamin Radford at Discovery News on the differences in male and female brains (or the relative lack thereof). I have found Louann Brizendine’s The Male Brain (the target of this article) an entertaining and useful book, but it seems not all are in agreement on this topic.

Admittedly, her book is a for a general audience, not the science scene. And even she admits that she had to do a separate book on men and women to generate any real "buzz" among readers.

And while she does make some generalizations, her books do offer a fairly decent summary of what we know about brain function - and in a way that most readers who are not neuroscientists can understand.

How Different Are Male and Female Brains?

Analysis by
Benjamin Radford
Thu May 20, 2010 10:00 AM ET

The May/June 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind magazine is a special issue devoted to male vs. female brains, “His Brain / Her Brain: How We’re Different.” The cover shows a face with a split image, a man on the left and a woman on the right. Clearly men and women think very differently—right?

Having a background in psychology, I am always amused to read magazine articles and books that promise to reveal all the fascinating ways that people’s brains are different—yet (if the piece was written by an actual expert) sooner or later the author admits that there’s really not much difference between normal brains. Men, women, left-brainers, right-brainers, Asians, Africans, we are all pretty much the same. This, of course, is a rather mundane truth that does not help sell books and magazines, so typically this boring caveat is immediately glossed over in favor of more sensationalized and speculative story, and mountains are made out of molehills.

For example, in an article on gender differences between boys and girls in the issue of Scientific American Mind mentioned above, the author acknowledges that, “Boys and girls are different, but most psychological sex differences are not especially large.... Researchers have found very few large-scale differences between boys and girls in brain structure or function.... Most sex differences start out small.” This is quite true and accurate, but kind of undermines the point of the article.

In an insightful review of Louann Brizendine’s new book The Male Brain in The New York Times, Emily Bazelon notes that Brizendine “has put her professional training behind a breezy, incautious account of how the brain, urged on by hormones, makes men and women act completely differently. You’d never know from reading Brizendine that beneath the sea she blithely sails are depths that researchers have only just begun to chart. Brizendine nods to the fact that the brains of men and women are mostly alike. But her emphasis is entirely on the ‘profound differences’ between them. This is clearly the best-seller strategy, neatly bisected into two books. The Female Brain, published in 2006, drove reviewers in publications like Nature mad but lit up the talk show circuit and the Amazon rankings. The Male Brain is positioned for a similar second round. Would Brizendine have gotten this kind of pop for a single book called The Male and Female Brain: Mostly One and the Same? Not a chance.”

There are of course extremes and exceptions, such as people who cannot recognize faces, have retrograde amnesia, and autistic savants (such as Kim Peek, the “Rain Man”). But that’s not what these authors are talking about; authors like Brizendine are claiming (often based on sparse studies and plausible-but-unproven speculation) that there exist dramatic differences in normal populations.

While gender differences is a common example, the old left brain / right brain duality is often trotted out. The idea—widely embraced by New Agers—that some people are left-brained (logical, linear, analytic, masculine) while others are right-brained (holistic, intuitive, creative, feminine) is largely a myth. While the two hemispheres of the brain do differ somewhat in their functions, they are intricately related and share information extensively. Creativity is not solely—or even largely—a function of the right hemisphere of the brain, nor is logical analysis uniquely located in the left hemisphere. Of course there is a grain of truth to these claims: just as boys and girls brains are not exactly the same, the brain’s two hemispheres are not identical. But nor are they dramatically different; there’s more variation within the brains than between them.

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