Sex differences in the brain ‘exaggerated, forcing gender stereotypes’

Thursday, October 28, 2010

WASHINGTON - Many studies have reported sex differences in brain structure or patterns of neural activity but a psychological scientist from the Macquarie University in Australia believes that these differences are overblown.

According to Cordelia Fine, we should be skeptical about reports of brain differences between the sexes. As an academic, she was curious about the research on which these claims were based, and looked up the original studies.

“There were huge discrepancies between what the neuroimaging studies showed and the conclusions and claims that were being drawn from them,” she said.

The studies Fine came across were often conducted with small numbers of men and women, where the differences seen could have been due to chance. It’s very easy and obvious for neuroscientists to compare the sexes by default.

But when neuroscientists habitually check for sex differences, some researchers, just by chance, will find statistically significant differences between the two groups-even if there’s no real difference between men and women overall.

Neuroscientists who do the research know that one study with 20-odd participants that finds some small region of difference between males and females is not the final word on the issue, but these often subtle, questionable differences are readily seized on by popular writers, Fine said.

Another problem is how to interpret sex differences in the brain. The temptation, to which popular writers are particularly vulnerable, is to use gender stereotypes to bridge that gap in scientific knowledge.

As a result, substantial behavioural evidence of gender similarity, or the sensitivity of gender differences to context, can be overshadowed by a single finding of a sex difference in the brain.

“A healthy dose of skepticism is required when it comes to reports of sex differences in the brain and what they mean,” said Fine, who is concerned that claims about differences in male and female brains are reinforcing old-fashioned gender stereotypes.

The article is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. (ANI)

Filed under: Science and Technology

will not be displayed