So I have some thoughts on the role of neuroscience in the study of gender. I know this is a controversial topic, so I’m going to tread lightly. I’ve written a rather long paper (23 pages) on that subject, which also includes some discussion on neuroscience and sexuality, which you can find here.
Now I know what you’re thinking:
So, for your benefit, I have written a shorter version of the argument, without citations and with GIFs inserted where marginally appropriate. Here goes:
There are a number of implicit assumptions about gender in neuroscience research. These are:
- Categories of gender (e.g. male/female) are hard-and-fast facts about what humans can be like, i.e., these categories aren’t socially contingent.
- Neuroscience is uniquely suited to study the physical origins of gender-typed behaviors (because these behaviors are obviously mediated by some neural circuits).
- Neuroscience has actually conclusively shown that the male brain is different from the female brain in some meaningful way.
All these assumptions are problematic. Let me show you why.
A lot of feminists have argued that sex and gender are distinct: sex is biological and for the most part fixed, while gender is completely socialized. Moira Gatens, a philosophy professor at the University of Sydney, has criticized this sex/gender distinction by pointing out that that to assume that gender is completely socialized is to buy into the fallacies of behaviorism (a stimulus-response model of learning and behavior). This is problematic because behaviorism has been proven wrong. The central tenet of behaviorism is that given sufficient training, an animal can learn to respond to a stimulus any way you wanted it to, and you could expect the animal to consistently respond in this way. But we know that this isn’t true: animals have particular behavioral tendencies and have evolutionarily inscribed predispositions to learn some behaviors and not others. And these limitations are due to fixed circuits in their brain. This is the ethological model of learning. This model leaves ample room for learned behaviors, so long as they are within a particular animal’s capacity to learn. Moira Gatens therefore concludes that gender and sex aren’t necessarily distinct.
Now hold up.
Before you go on thinking that gender-typed behaviors are evolutionarily fixed because behaviorism is wrong, notice that the ethological model applies to the level of species, not gender. It makes sense in ethology to talk about why one species can learn a certain behavior while another species can’t, simply because the differences in brain structure between species are significant enough to place different learning constraints on different species. For this to be true of gender, then brain differences between males and females would have to be significant enough as to place different constraints on what behaviors males can learn as opposed to what behaviors females can learn. This is of course assuming that there is a clear biological distinction between the male and female sex, which is itself a contested supposition. But I am taking as assumed that even if we allow for a spectrum of sexed bodies that includes sex-ambiguous individuals, then we can still point to two ends of the spectrum and label individuals who fall on one side as “sex-male” and individuals who fall on the other side as “sex-female.” Given this assumption, if it is true that there is a wide enough gap between the brains of individuals who are sex-male and sex-female as to significantly restrict what behaviors a male or female can learn, then there would indeed be a physical correlate to a “female” mind and a “male” mind.
But that’s just not the case. And even if we did find significant differences between the male brain and the female brain, that doesn’t necessarily point to differences between the male mind and the female mind.
Here I’ll refer to a paper by neuroscientist-philosopher Ginger Hoffman titled, “What, If Anything, Can Neuroscience Tell Us About Gender Differences?” Hoffman argues that neuroscientific data fail to provide any “special” evidence for fundamental gender differences. By “special” evidence, Hoffman means any indication that behavioral differences between genders are physically grounded or permanent. The attached paper has a far more in-depth review of Hoffman’s argument, but we can summarize it here:
1) Neuroscientific data cannot show functional differences across genders to be permanent because patterns of neural activity are constantly changing.
2) Structural differences between males and females don’t mean much either because the brain is highly plastic. And there’s no consensus anyway on whether there are any significant structural differences in the brains of males and females (i.e., there are some differences, but not in areas that have anything to do with behavior).
3) The same mental state can be instantiated differently in different brains. So, for example, a specific type of jealousy could be realized in brain area A in one person and in brain area B in another person. So, even if the male brain will typically show this pattern of activity when doing some task and the female brain will typically show that pattern of activity when doing some task, it’s possible that there’s no subjective difference between males and females when performing that task. Therefore, differences in brain do not necessarily imply differences in mind.
There’s another line of reasoning that you can level against the idea that brain differences mean hard-and-fast behavioral differences. This comes from the philosophical theory of active externalism, which holds that there are objects or features of the world external to the brain that are parts of the mind. The intuition behind this is simple: internal mental processes are partially driven by factors that are external to the brain, such as people, computers, organizational devices or journals, etc., and so it seems arbitrary to demarcate the limits of the mind as the physical outline of the brain. A fruitful project for feminist philosophers of mind and cultural theorists would be to offer a full account of the external “scaffolding” that grounds ideas about gender and sexuality norms in our extended minds. Though no such account exists, to my knowledge, it is easy to see how various social forces that shape norms about gender and sexuality are communicated through media, which could be considered external resources on which our extended minds supervene. Such media include books, music, newspapers, movies, and television shows that, either implicitly or explicitly, perpetuate norms and stereotypes. So the gendered mind cannot be localized to the brain, and, as such, neuroscience is not fully equipped to study the entire physical substrate of the gendered mind. For example, ubiquitous images and stories depicting boys playing with cars and girls playing with dolls might be just as much a “neural” correlate to boys’ tendency to prefer cars and girls’ tendency to prefer dolls as anything in the actual brain. And it is not the job of neuroscience to study things that are physically external to the brain. Therefore, the identification of a neural correlate to a supposedly gendered behavior does not tell the full story of where that behavior comes from.
Now I know I’m throwing a lot at you, so maybe take a short breather. We’re almost done!
So far I’ve argued that there can only be a physical basis for the differences between the “male” mind and the “female” mind if there is a wide enough gap between the sex-male and sex-female brain so as to significantly constrain what behaviors a sex-male or sex-female can learn. As I’ve argued, I’m not convinced that neuroscience is even well suited to answer that question. Having said that, I still think it’s worthwhile to look at what neuroscience actually has found. In short: not much.
The adult brain is not sexually dimorphic in any obvious way. There is no consensus in neuroscience as to the degree of divergence between the brains of males and females, with some neuroscientists claiming that there are no differences, others that there are a few, and yet others that the differences are wide-ranging and dramatic. When various clearly anatomically divergent yet functionally irrelevant features are controlled for, it turns out that the only difference between males and females that is consistently found across studies is the size of a tiny group of cells in hypothalamus called INAH-3, which is larger in men than in women. The function of INAH-3 is unclear. In fact, it is not even clear whether its function has anything to do with higher-order psychological functions that are of interest to the study of behavioral sexual dimorphisms. As evidence for more widespread divergence between brains of the sexes, one might point to the subtle differences between males in females in patterns of neural activation during the performance of the same task. But, there is no evidence that these small differences are developmental, i.e., “hardwired,” as opposed to acquired via neuroplasticity as a result of various gendered norms and culturally-encouraged behaviors.
The question is then whether there is evidence to indicate variability of supposedly sexually dimorphic behavior in humans. There have been two ways of demonstrating that human gender-typed behavior is indeed variable. The first has been to undermine the empirical validity of the claim that we can even characterize a particular trait as “masculine” or “feminine.” A number of studies have done this by demonstrating that, at the group level, how males and females differ in occupational interests, cognitive abilities, academic interests, and sexual orientation is itself subject to change and variation. Findings along these lines – that the differences between males and females are not rigid or permanent – undermine the notion that biological markers like brain differences or prenatal hormone exposure can permanently determine gender-typed behaviors. The other way to demonstrate that human sexually dimorphic behaviors are transient has been to look at the capacity of individuals to change supposedly permanent gendered behaviors and cognitive capacities, even as adults. One such example challenges the reliable finding that males are better than females at mentally rotating images and that males have better spatial attention. One study found that when both males and females train for just 10 hours on an action video game, both spatial attention and mental rotation abilities improved for both groups. Interestingly, the improvement was larger for females, leading to a near elimination of the gender gap in spatial attention and a significant decrease in mental rotation ability differences. Neither males nor females showed significant improvements in either spatial attention or mental rotation abilities when training on a non-action video game. This implies that supposedly gender-specific abilities are malleable on the level of the individual.
What these findings mean is that even though neuroscience might assume categories of gender to be “true” in the sense that they are grounded in the brain, the field has largely failed to demonstrate the justifiability of these assumptions on empirical grounds.
Where do we go from here? Do we ignore neuroscience when it contends to have found a physical basis for the differences between gender-males and gender-females? Clearly not, because neuroscience has been useful in finding brain areas and patterns of neural activity that are involved in, rather than determine, gender-typed behaviors. And we do want to be able to explain the origins of supposedly gender-typed behaviors, just as we want better accounts of nature in general despite our reservations regarding the cultural and political contingencies of science. Even if neuroscience is not in a unique or privileged position to fully explain gendered behaviors and human sexuality, it clearly must be utilized in any theory that purports to do so.
** A friend of mine pointed out that I largely treat gender and sex as a binary in this post. I should note that this was mostly for the sake of brevity. For more information on gender as a continuum, you can check out this Wikipedia article. If you have a better link, please feel free to post it in the comments.