Thursday, March 25, 2010

Love, sex and nonsense: how "neuroscience" can be used to reinforce gender stereotypes

Biological differences define the male and female sexes. Since biology is not separate from psychology, it should be unsurprising that females and males exhibit different behaviours and abilities. Louann Brizendine, a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, has taken clever notice of this and has published a popular, accessible article on CNN titled “Love, sex and the male brain” to endorse her new book, The Male Brain.

The only problem is that her article is not at all about the male brain. It reads more like a dating/relationship advice column for a target audience of insecure women, and men who want to validate their aggressive and lascivious behavior with science that says they are not to blame. Brizendine argues that stereotypical characteristics of men, such as a lacking ability for empathy and a preoccupation with sex, are proven by neuroscience to be innate. She does this by speaking about how the “defend your turf” and “I feel what you feel” areas of the brain (areas that don’t actually exist) are different in males and females. Such claims hugely oversimplify the complexity of the actual data from studies that she is speaking of in order to make the article accessible to a lay audience. The danger in doing so is that she departs so far from the data that her claims are outright lies. The same could be said about her ridiculous insistence that men get stuck in a “man trance—that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts.”

Brizendine fails to acknowledge any stereotypes she discusses except when she speaks of love: “Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the male brain can fall in love…” really? The male brain can fall in love? Those who bought the stereotype that men can’t fall in love must be shocked to learn that the male brain can! And neuroscience can tell us it’s true? Cute.

Unfortunately the article does a much better job of reinforcing gender stereotypes than it does of providing useful relationship advice, or accurate information for that matter. To point out all the flawed statements would be an exhaustive exercise given the sheer number of flaws, so let’s focus instead on what is missing from the article. For starters, Brizendine doesn’t give the male brain any credit for its ability to learn and adapt. She speaks only about adults, but our brains are largely shaped during infancy, childhood, and youth. Experience plays a large role in shaping our brains, and it is in fact likely that many typical “male behaviours” are learned.

Lise Eliot has written a (much better) article in the May/June 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind arguing that psychological sex differences are not as large as they are perceived to be, and differences in brain structure and function do not necessarily account for emotional and cognitive differences. Eliot cites studies to back up all her claims, just as any mindful writer would. She focuses on reducing stereotypes rather than promoting them, stating that “[a]ppreciating how sex differences emerge can reduce dangerous stereotyping.” The how she refers to entails a combination of biology and environment, not just biology alone.

It is certainly important to discuss and study male/female brain differences. These differences can give insight to how the sexes experience mental health issues differently and respond to psychiatric treatments differently. Differences in cognition can give insight to education strategies (e.g. getting boys to read more, getting girls more involved in math/science). But sex differences should be discussed in such a way that is critical of our current Mars-Venus obsession. The general public deserves much better than inaccurate information and reinforced stereotypes. But if that is actually what you want, pick up a copy of The Male Brain. I sure won’t be reading it.


  1. This is a very opinionated, nonobjective blog post. I think despite your desire to not read The Male Brain, you should read it anyway. There's only so much information one can put into an article, especially an article that is intended to catch the general public's attention. As you mention, she is endorsing her new book, so it makes sense to write the article as she did. Comparing a CNN article to a Scientific American Mind article may not be entirely fair.

    Also, neuroscience is not necessarily being used to reinforce stereotypes or suggest stereotypes are correct. It may merely be used to provide a scientific basis for why these stereotypes exist at all.

    To summarize...
    "To point out all the flawed statements would be an exhaustive exercise given the sheer number of flaws..."
    "... cites studies to back up all ... claims, just as any mindful writer would."
    "I sure won’t be reading it."

    Read. The. Book.

  2. Agreed, my post is very opinionated, and Brizendine had to sensationalize her findings in order to get attention. I think there are better ways to do this.

    "[Neuroscience] may be merely used to provide a scientific basis for why these stereotypes exist at all"... but unfortunately the writer doesn't even acknowledge in this article that she is discussing stereotypes, and the "scientific basis" is not based on reasonable interpretation of studies.

    I agree that it is unfair to directly compare the CNN and SciAm articles. I tried to minimize comparisons, however, and instead I was referring the reader to better information and commentary on the topic of the male/female brain.

    It is true that the book is probably less flawed and more carefully written than the CNN article. I shall not judge a book by its endorsement strategies.

  3. I'm pretty sure the book is irrelevant and the issue here is the article as it appears online, on the website of a news network with as much clout as CNN no less. First an attempt to increase book sales by appealing to a mass audience is not an excuse to grossly misrepresent any supposedly scientific facts as far as I'm concerned. More importantly most people who read this article are not well versed in scientific research and ARE NOT going to read the book or any better sources. Articles like this shape the dialogue and opinions of the general public, I don't think we should underestimate the damage that can be done by reinforcing the "Mars-Venus stereotype", and for those reasons I expect better posts on the website of a supposedly high calibre news network.

  4. "Articles like this shape the dialogue and opinions of the general public..."

    This is indeed very much the case, as people posted this article all over Facebook and Twitter calling it "interesting." The article would not be as damaging if it was posted on a blog or a promotional website, but a news network as popular and credible as CNN should be doing a better job of staying away from publishing this sort of material.

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  6. Here's another very good critique of the Male Brain