OK, this is a soggy chestnut of subject in its frequent populist outings. I am prompted by an entertaining, but lightweight, documentary on the BBC recently, concerning the differences between the brains of men and women. It offered glimpses into research done over a number of years involving brain scans and experiments that concludes that – yes, there are differences in the way the brains of males and females are wired, and in the manifestation of behaviours between the sexes. But other research indicates that any differences are not functionally so significant… Brains are plastic and adaptable.
OK, that is a mushy summary! It is impossible to define what is a base model brain for a man and for a woman, or indeed any other sexual categorisation. If Nature was so rigid, natural selection would not work. Responsiveness and adaptability are qualities that allow life to adapt to changing environments.
There are times when I have wanted to try out a deluxe model of a brain, someone really clever, to see what it would be like to drive the brain of a genius and do amazing things with mathematics. (Possibly much the same result as if I borrowed a very fast car – it would get dented in the supermarket car park.) For my test drive, I had thought of Roger Penrose – I’m not sexist. My own brain is that of a middle-aged female, now under-exercised, feeling the effects of motherhood and wine, and probably in cognitive decline. But I can’t go to a brain showroom and ask for a replacement ‘female’ brain to fit my particular skull size. Brains don’t come in clear pink or blue for girls and boys, but are shaped by responses to hormones in the womb, and by physiological responses to experience in life. Much shaping goes on in adolescence, it seems, perhaps resulting in some marked differences in neural connections. But how much is this inherent in basic physiology, and how much is due to nurture?
This was the underlying question that the presenters – Alice Roberts and Michael Moseley – were asking in the BBC documentary – are the perceived gender differences due to nature – some sex-related physiological aspect of brain development – or nurture – the way we condition children according to their sex. The answer was a clear, yes – and, er, no. I found this unsurprising given the extraordinary variety of human beings I have encountered, and the wide variety of cultural perspectives on the roles of the sexes throughout the world.
To test the ideas we need a good sample of ‘unbiased’ humans. Of course, we have no ‘nurture-clean’ examples of humans to work on. Instead, researchers have looked at other primates. The documentary presented a colony of Barbary Apes with a choice of toys – trucks or dolls. And – yes – the females went for the dolls, and the males the trucks. But the dolls are inherently anthro – or apethro – pomorphic. The females will surely have seen nurturing behaviour from other females. I wonder what would have happened if they had offered only dolls or only trucks… or maybe something like a ball, to see if the way the apes played with it was related to the sex of the ape.
I think it is fair to observe from empirical experience of life that there are differences in the preferences of girls for dolls – females are generally more attuned to faces and social play. We do the talking, apparently! I do believe that nurturing is highly influential in how children develop. An environment that is inherently gender-polarising will undoubtedly emphasise differential development. I was fortunate to have a child of each sex and I am convinced it was beneficial for them to play together and with a mixed cohort of friends. It is interesting to observe households where the children turned out all one sex . The family cocktail of sounds, smells and accessories produces a quite different domestic atmosphere. For girl-dominated households, the ubiquity of pink is often notable, be it clothes, wallpaper of lunchboxes. (Apologies for the generalisation, but pink is often forced into the lives of girls in products made for them, be it toothbrushes or slippers.) The documentary highlighted how adults have gendered prejudices in expectation of male and female children. They will offer girls dolls to play with and boys cars. This was tested by dressing a boy as a girl and vice versa. Interestingly the boy in pink was not much interested in the doll, and the girl in boy’s clothes had no attraction to the car. Parents also had lower expectations for the physical capabilities of their girls, despite their similarities in size and age. From the earliest age, nature and nurture are tangled in a feedback loop.
Both of my kids had comparable abilities across the educational spectrum, and have grown into well-balanced adults. I observed differences in how they were treated in school. My daughter was expected to be tidy and diligent – much more so than her brother who seemed to ‘get away with’ less tidy handwriting and much shorter essays. I noted that girls responded well to a likeable female maths teacher who gave them confidence, and that certain male teachers made the girls feel less confident due to the way they treated a class of adolescents. It concerned me in the BBC documentary that the girls featured all claimed not to like maths and science that much, intending to do ‘something more creative’ in future. The boys named specific careers – doctor, architect etc. and all seemed to like maths!
Adolescence is a time when peer pressure is powerful, and there can be no getting away from the differences in a spectrum of hormones and the effects on the brain, and – again – the documentary highlighted this. But this does not mean that males and females turn into different species. Another study showed that functional differences between the sexes were less marked. It is clear that women can become highly successful engineers, mathematicians and scientists, and these options should be presented as desirable – and ‘creative’. And, of course, boys may be discouraged from following ‘feminine’ careers.
I worry that education has become focussed on a set of tests and statistics that does not treat the kids as individuals with widely varying learning needs. The media has had an overly strong influence on young people, encouraging stereotypes based on aesthetics and celebrity – particularly for girls. We have a popular culture based on superficial cues formed from social media rather than real relationships, which could have a significant impact according to the sex of the individual. This is a powerful tool, we must be alert to its consequences.