By Staci Matlock
The Santa Fe New Mexican.
Psychologist Cordelia Fine didn’t set out to debunk the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
She was just a parent trying to glean tips from popular parenting books, and one who happened to have a background in neuroscience.
“I became intrigued with parenting books that said research had shown boys’ and girls’ brains were fundamentally different,” she said. “And that we need to parent [boys and girls] in different ways and teach them in different ways in order bring out their full potential.”
As a scientist, she delved into the studies behind the popular literature. “I was really shocked at the disconnection between what the neuroscience study showed and the kind of practical claims that were being made from that,” said Fine, a researcher and teacher with the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, Australia.
She was also surprised to find what she thinks are holes in the scientific studies themselves. “Some of the cultural assumptions about sex differences were influencing how the studies were conducted and interpreted,” Fine said. “It horrified me.”
Fine explores what science and society say about differences in male and female brains at a free Santa Fe Institute Community Lecture at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the James A. Little Theater. She’ll offer a new way to think about the research and how it is interpreted.
Fine takes the popular notions about differences in male and female brains to task in her 2010 book, Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, which was named Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Guardian.
In article after article in popular media, male brains are described as being marked by sex, aggression and a grand ability at all things spatial while female brains are said to be geared toward emotion and great communication skills.
A 2014 article in Psychology Today carries the subhead “Do you ever wonder why men and women think so differently?” and ascribes women’s ability as “great multi-taskers” and men’s ability to “excel in highly task-focused projects” to differences in brain matter.
Fine takes issue with that kind of stereotyping because she thinks the science doesn’t back up such a broad claim.
Sure, men’s brains as a rule are larger than women’s brains, just as men on average are taller. Men have different hormones affecting their brains. Different parts of female and male brains light up during neuroimaging scans. In fact, there are tons of biological differences between the brains of men and women. But there is little proof that all that has much bearing on whether males and females fundamentally act, think or feel a whole lot differently from each other, say Fine and a host of neuroscientists.
“While there are sex differences in behaviors, there’s a lot of overlap in how men and women think, act and behave,” Fine said. “People are usually a mix of what we [label] masculine and feminine qualities.”‘
In a TED Talk presentation, Tel-Aviv University neuropsychologist Daphna Joel noted that some 50,000 psychology studies in the last few decades have found remarkable similarities between male and female brains and few significant differences. Joel argues that multiple studies show babies are born with brains that have both male and female characteristics, a kind of brain mosaic. “There is no male brain or female brain,” she said.
The danger in misinterpreting what science says about male and female brains is that it hones stereotypes about men and women, Fine said. Less than a century ago, she said, policymakers interpreted science in a way that discouraged women from higher education, voting and running marathons.
“My message is not that there aren’t sex differences in the brain that affect brain development and functioning,” Fine said.
“My concern really is that when it comes to understanding human behavior, there’s this incredible complexity. We are still very much at the beginning of our journey of understanding how we get from these incredibly complicated neurocircuits in our brains to our complex human behavior.”
Brains learn through experience. Our brains and our behavior are influenced by culture, social expectations, family pressure, environment and any number of other factors including genetics, she said.
“When it comes to sex differences,” Fine said, “it is very easy to use stereotypes to spackle in that gap in our knowledge.”
For the moment, she said, it might be more accurate to say men and women frequent both Mars and Venus.