The media keep telling us: There’s no difference between male and female brains.
I don’t believe it. Many of you must be skeptical, too. Seventeen million people watched my old ABC show on sex differences, almost as many as watched “Game of Thrones.”
Nonetheless, people now fill auditoriums to hear neuroscientist Gina Rippon talk about her new book that claims “New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds.”
Rippon says it’s important to tell people that sex isn’t an important indicator in how brains work so we don’t fall prey to stereotypes. “You don’t want an idea that this (difference) is something that’s natural,” she says in my new video.
“It’s not natural,” I ask, “that in school, more boys want to play football and more girls want to do ballet? I want to run and bang into people.”
“Actually, girls might want to run and bang into people, but because there’s an image that girls don’t do that, they’re stopped from doing that,” she replies.
But in my reporting, I’ve covered research that shows innate differences.
In one experiment, students were blindfolded and then walked through tunnels running underneath a college campus. When the women were asked the direction of a college building, they weren’t so sure. One said: “How would I know? I’m blindfolded!”
Men, however, tend to have better spatial awareness and retained a sense of which direction they’d moved.
On the other hand, women have a better memory for detail.
In one test, students were told to wait in a cluttered room and later asked what was in that room.
Women often gave long answers like, “There were envelopes, university envelopes, a thing of Clearasil, a Bazooka Joe comic…”
Men were more likely to say, “I don’t know … some stuff.”
Of course, maybe they’d been molded by our sexist society — conditioned to do what’s expected of men and women.
But I reminded Rippon that even tests on infants find differences. Baby boys look longer at objects, such as tractor parts. Infant girls stare at faces.
“A third of the girls actually seem to respond more to the tractor parts,” said Rippon.
When I pointed out that meant two-thirds of the girls did not, Rippon said that the experiment should be redone “with a bigger set of newborns.”
Maybe. But scientists shouldn’t keep redoing experiments until they get results they like.
Some female scientists acknowledge that men’s and women’s brains are different.
“You can tell, looking at brains, whether they belong to a male or a female 80% of the time,” says evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman.
Also: “Cultures around the world show very similar differences between men and women. Men are more likely to seek status; women are more likely to take care of children. Women are more likely to stay in the home; men are more likely to do dangerous, aggressive things like go to war.”
I suggest that perhaps the sexes are alike and all cultures have imposed similar biases.
“Look at nonhuman animals, monkeys: They don’t have culture, yet there’s still very large differences between males and females,” she responds.
Among scientists, that’s common opinion. The Journal of Neuroscience Research says 70 studies found differences. Boys, for example, are more likely to be autistic, to be colorblind and to have speech problems.
Even Gina Rippon says, “I’m definitely not a brain difference denier.”
But her media coverage suggests she’s discovered that male and female brains are the same.
“It’s an incredibly alluring message,” says Fleishman with a laugh. “It’s really sad that it’s not right!”
Of course, science shouldn’t seek an alluring message. It should just be about the truth.
But the truth doesn’t stop politicians from demanding absolute equality in all things — even if men and women have different interests.
“Saying that men and women have different aptitudes isn’t sexism. It’s a statement about the true nature of the world,” says Fleischman. “If we keep saying that those differences … are because of sexism, nobody’s going to end up happy with what they’re doing, and we’re going to keep making laws to remedy what’s actually the result of freedom.”