Bernal Lecture 2020: Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

Clare Samson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences reports on the annual Bernal lecture that was given by Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science on Monday 4 February, that explored whether there really is an essentially male and female brain.

photo of head bust printed

Professor J.D. Bernal is remembered for work on the social consequences of science as much as for his ground-breaking research, and these lectures have frequently focused on societal issues. The choice of Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia as the 2020 lecturer echoes Bernal’s passionate advocacy of women in science; Fine’s choice of title, Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, proved an engaging one. Tickets ran out long before the lecture, which took place on Monday, 4 February 2020; the lecture theatre was packed, and Fine held her audience’s attention throughout.

Fine began by explaining how our 19th-century ancestors viewed the difference between the sexes. Less than 150 years ago, the overwhelming majority accepted that men and women were biologically determined for their different roles. In 1876 a Professor Edward Clarke wrote a best-selling book that suggested that ‘if a woman were to engage in the hard-intellectual labour of higher education, it would divert energy from her [clearly far more important] reproductive system’. Even progressive voices supporting women’s education claimed that it would help them become ‘more interesting wives and better mothers’. Scientific justification for these views often focused on one simple variable: brain size. Since an average male brain is significantly larger than a female one, they argued, one would expect women to be intellectually inferior.

It is easy to argue against that viewpoint, since we are not ruled by elephants or whales. This degree of bias seems bizarre to our ears, yet, as Fine explained, we all – even neurologists and psychologists – look, perhaps unconsciously, through biased lenses. Differences between male and female brains do exist, but they are highly complex and subtle ones. She identified three main biases: androcentrism, in which the masculine view of the world is taken as central; gender polarisation, in which the masculine and the feminine are seen as polar opposites; and biological essentialism, in which traits are seen as innate and biologically (often genetically) determined, rather than arising from both nature and nurture.

Much of the lecture focused on the way in which gender polarisation continues to affect both academic and popular science. This bias is seen in the proliferation of ‘pop psychology’ books, arguing that men are from Mars and women from Venus; that men are like waffles and women like spaghetti; or that there is some innate reason why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. Academic books setting out reasons for this ‘essential difference’ between male and female brains are still being written, and still sell well.

She presented a case study of a paper in a reputable journal that seemed to show innate differences between the connectivity of male and female brains: that is, the way they are ‘wired’.  According to this paper, female brains have stronger connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while male ones have stronger connections between each hemisphere. Fine noted that although the difference was there, it was a tiny one. All the pairs of ‘bell curves’ showing brain characteristics of the women and men in the study overlapped so greatly that any differences would be described as ‘modest’ at most. No differences justified the word ‘striking’ used in the paper’s title, and no correlations were given with behaviour. Press officers, however, see headlines rather than read graphs. Publication of this paper led to headlines such as ‘Men and women wired like different species – expert’ (New Zealand Times); ‘Yes, each sex is really from a different planet’ (Metro, UK); and even ‘Women crap at parking: official’ (The Register).

Gender polarisation is summed up in the idea of a single scale with ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’ brains at opposite ends, suggesting that they are opposites and, at times, equating the ‘extreme male brain’ with autistic tendencies. It is possible to take a quiz to position your brain at some point between the ‘systemising’ male brain and the ‘empathising’ female one, but the results can be odd: Fine quoted a colleague who found, on taking the test, that he seemed to have ‘no brain at all’. Even popular psychology makes more sense if ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are seen as different characteristics with no relationship to gender. The idea of men as stereotypically problem-solvers and women as collaborators should be consigned to the past. Each community – including the scientific community – will flourish best when it is diverse, open and able to identify and eliminate bias.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: College, Science . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Collaborating with east London’s university community

Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach and Access Officer for Stratford discusses the East London Collaboration Day that she organised with universities operating in east London. She also discusses the onus behind creating the East London Widening Participation Forum. 

While many might be used to universities coming together to recruit students at Higher Education Fairs, on the 25 February we brought universities together for a slightly different reason. 

Rather than just showcasing the courses offered by different universities, the East London Universities Collaboration Day aimed to make educational professionals working in schools, colleges and other organisations more aware of the outreach and widening participation offer available from universities based in east London.  

We all know that with increasing workloads and lots of things to juggle, it can often be difficult for teachers or other educational professionals to know who to contact at a university. Bring into the mix that universities have different specialties and their access work might focus on different groups and you have a situation where education professionals want to engage their students with the idea of university but don’t know where to start.  

This event that I set up and run in partnership with China Anya, Senior Outreach Officer at Loughborough University of London aimed to address this by giving people the opportunity to find out about the different universities specialities and meet face to face with widening participation teams. Attendees had the chance to network with universities and hear more about their outreach work, as well as take part in a workshop and panel session which covered topics such as student wellbeing, part-time study and funding options.  

Ten universities attended including established east London Higher Education institutions such as Queen Mary and the University of East London, and more recent arrivals to the area including Loughborough, Coventry and Staffordshire Universities 

The day was part of a wider initiative, the East London Widening Participation Forum that was set up in 2019 as part of the Access and Engagement Department’s outreach work in the Borough of Newham.  

It’s important that universities work together to help those who face barriers to accessing higher education. With lots of universities coming to east London as part of developments such as the Olympic park, 2019 seemed like the perfect time to bring established east London universities and more recent arrivals together. The aim of the forum is to see how we can work in partnership to help east Londoners take advantage of the activities and information about Higher Education offered by our forum’s members – who are right on their doorstep! 

We’re looking forward to seeing where the forum goes from here and are definitely hoping to run more workshops and events. We had over 30 professionals come along to the event and feedback from attendees has been great. There’s clearly an appetite for universities to come together and share their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way. 

 

 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , ,

London students envision a greener future with Creative Hack

The two-day hackathon supported students to develop smart business ideas to make London a cleaner and greener city.

In January, university students from across London came together to take part in Creative Hack, a two-day ‘hackathon’ run in collaboration with the London College of Fashion, Birkbeck, London South Bank University, Loughborough London University, University of East London, University College London and Washington University in St Lewis.

The hackathon is an opportunity for entrepreneurial students to network and build cross-institutional collaborations, whilst generating ideas that they may go on to submit in the annual Mayor’s Entrepreneur Competition.

There’s no shortage of inspirational initiatives taking place in the capital: from harnessing the steps of passers-by to generate electricity to making swim shorts from plastic waste found in the Thames, entrepreneurs play a key role in making London a greener place to live and work.

The Mayor’s Entrepreneur Competition aims to continue this tradition of innovation by supporting students in London to step up to the challenge of building a truly sustainable city, offering prizes for business ideas to make London cleaner and greener.

In Creative Hack, 17 teams of students and graduates across the different universities had two days to generate ideas to solve some of the biggest environmental challenges facing London today. Teams could choose from four main themes: Environment, Smart Cities, Creative Industries or Health.

Supported by experienced entrepreneurs and experts in design, pitching and team management, teams were guided through the ‘hacking’ process, from ideation through to pitching.

The two-day hackathon culminated with teams pitching their ideas to a panel of expert judges, with the winners decided through an audience vote. The winning team, Erive, pitched an innovative alternative to power charging stations, receiving £2,500 and dedicated application support for the Mayor’s Entrepreneur Competition in recognition of their innovative success.

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, College . Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One World Festival: Lunar New Year Celebration

This blog was contributed by Fengzhi Zhao, who is reading a PhD in Applied Linguistics and is Chair of the Birkbeck Chinese Society; Kevin Lau, who is studying Management at Birkbeck and is the SU Postgraduate Officer; and La Young Jackson, International Liaison Officer at Birkbeck.  

Birkbeck students celebrating Lunar New Year

On January 24 2020the day before the Lunar New Year, a celebratory event was held at Birkbeck.  

London has a large international community and so here at Birkbeck, University of London we held our own Lunar New Year celebrations to celebrate the start of the Year of the Rat! As part of the One World FestivalLa Young from International Student Administration, Kevin from the Students’ Union, and Fengzhi from the Birkbeck Chinese Society teamed up and transformed an ordinary teaching room into a room of festive activities and fun!  

Lunar New Year is the most important festival in many Far East countries such as China, Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. The event not only celebrated the festival for students, alumni and staff from these countries, but also provided a chance for those from other countries to experience the festival atmosphere of different culture. Students and staff had the opportunity to try various Asian snacks and drinks, with many snacks and decorations being directly shipped from Hong Kong, China.  

“With typical decorations such as Lucky Cat, Chinese couplets, and red lanterns, we are immersed in true Chinese New Year atmosphere”, said Fengzhi.  

There were many activities for students to participate. One activity was crafting Red Envelope Fish, which is commonly taught at primary school but can be easily be enjoyed by university students. As part of the New Year celebrations in China, in Mandarin, the word “fish” sounds similar to “surplus” and so it is considered to be auspicious and brings wealth to the person.  

Lucky red fish for Lunar New Year

It was a pleasure to introduce students to our traditions of celebrating the start of the New Year. I really appreciate all students from around the world taking an interest and understanding of why the colour red is so important to many of our cultures. And to all students, I wish them “学习进步” (progress in studies) and “金榜题名” (success in examination),” said Kevin. 

Students were also challenged to compete in a traditional Korean game of Jegichagi, where students would kick a jegi and keep it in the air for as long as possible. A feat that may be easy for those on the Birkbeck Football Team, but may be challenging for others!

Red envelope giving is a traditional Chinese gift that contains money and is given during holidays and special occasions. This tradition is about bestowing good luck and fortune to others. Students were shown how to make their own red envelopes and to write their own messages of good luck and fortune to those they wish to bestow fortune to, but were also given a more modern red envelope shipped directly from Hong Kong. Everyone who attended the event left with a red envelope with (chocolate) coins!

And so from all of us here at Birkbeck, we hope everyone will have a great Lunar New Year!

Fengzhi and Kevin

Further Information:

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics, College . Tags: , , , , , , , ,