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.

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“Boy Brain, Girl Brain” – A TRIGGER Seminar on Cognitive Early Development

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire, from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

boygirlSex differences have been the source of contentious debate in recent years, beguiling scientists, lay people and major stakeholders like the NHS and pharmaceutical companies. There are obvious physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes but cognitive differences are often conveyed through stereotypes – that males have better motor and spatial abilities and females have superior memory and social cognition skills, for example. While there is research to support some areas of cognitive sex difference, recent studies have shown that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years. This suggests the causes of these differences may have less to do with one’s genetics than one’s environment – that nurture may be just as powerful as nature to one’s brain development. It also provides further evidence for the effectiveness of contemporary social movements to bridge the gap between “women’s roles” as nurturing child-bearers and “men’s roles” as workers.

So what can research into typical and atypical early development tell us about sex differences? And should we be focusing on biology as the route of sex differences?  These were just some of the questions addressed by guest speaker Teodora Gliga, from Birkbeck’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, at a special seminar on Wednesday 7 December. The event was arranged and hosted by the Birkbeck TRIGGER initiative, a European-wide research project dedicated to Transforming Institutions by Gendering Contents and Gaining Equality in Research.

Why look at sex differences?

Hormonal differences initiated by biology and genes affect physical and cognitive development; the genes on sex chromosomes and the levels of sex hormones influence the brain during early development. Many psychiatric disorders are more common either in boys or girls; boys are more likely to develop autism – the focus of Teea’s research – but girls are more prone to anxiety. By utilising animal models of development and human studies that have revealed early biological differences between sexes present even before birth, Teodora was able to explain differences in susceptibility to risk factors associated with autism.

However, that the effect is amplified when the brain is exposed to risk factors or adversity, such as stress, demonstrates that biology is not the only variable in the development of a disorder like autism; recent research by Anne Fausto-Sterling on how best to study difference in infant early development has shown that, although birth characteristics provide a moment to begin analysis of developmental processes that lead to sex-related differences in behaviour and preference, this is an arbitrary starting point. Many of the biologically-oriented studies use prenatal sex differences in hormone production as the explanation for later difference in behaviour but according to Fausto-Sterling, it seems likely that hormones are but one of many factors affecting human foetal growth and development. In this framework, behaviour after birth develops independently as small biological differences are slowly magnified by external influences – social, cultural and environmental.

Case Study: The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings

The British Autism Study of Infant Siblings was established to explore the development of autism in young infants, and to advance and improve early detection and diagnosis. Parents frequently tell medical professionals that they knew there was something different about their child’s development quite early on, often long before an official diagnosis is received. However, it has been hard for researchers and clinicians to know about the very early signs for autism as they typically only see the child when they are over three years old, when a diagnosis can be reliably given. Although diagnoses for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have fallen in recent years, it remains more commonly developed by boys – 1:42 boys and 1:189 girls, according to studies from 2010 and 2014.

Scientific understanding of the neurobiological basis of autism has advanced dramatically in past decades, but there is still very little known about how the condition develops over the first few years. This is precisely why Teea’s team at the Birkbeck Babylab launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risks (STAARS) project, which looks specifically at the early development of baby brothers and sisters of children with autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit disorders and typical development. The project is notably an output of the TRIGGER programme, as the initiative provided the funding for the research assistant who carried out the analysis.

Of the participants with elder siblings with an ASD diagnosis, 20% went on to develop and get a diagnosis for ASD. The study showed a negative correlation between IQ and severity of symptoms, which provides further evidence that IQ is a protective factor against the development of autism. But Teodora was quick to remind the audience that there is still a lot of debate on these findings – there has not been one specific gene that can explain more than 10% of cases. One must also consider that the symptoms of autism might be exposed more easily in this case study, as it must be conducted on “High Risk” families, where they might be more actively looking for symptoms because of a heightened awareness of autism, and where interactions with siblings with an ASD diagnosis might even be a contributory environmental factor.

Teea finished her presentation with a call for more statistics and better models through which to analyse these statistics. If we are to gain a deeper understanding of ASD, its causes and its early detection, we must focus first on mediating effects that may reveal protective mechanisms, and on increasing our understanding of underlying biology of sex differences and the implications of hormones. According to the expert, “it is a story of interactions between biological, social and cultural factors with cascading effects.”

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The TRIGGER team at Birkbeck is currently seeking mentees and mentors for their Athena SWAN mentoring programme 2016/17. The mentoring scheme is open to research, technical and academic staff who work at Birkbeck – find out more here.

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