Neuroscience is in its infancy. It has been used to advance our knowledge of the brain, the nervous system, of disease, and the connectivity and plasticity of our intelligence. It has also been used to identify differences between the sexes. This is not as simple as it seems, and has lead to some very wild conclusions.
In 1915 Dr. Charles L. Dana, a neurologist wrote in the New York Times. 'There are some fundamental differences between the bony and the nervous structures of women and men.' He mentions the brain stem, mantle and basal ganglia, as well as the spinal cord, he continues, '(t)hese are structural differences which underlie definite differences in the two sexes. I do not say they will prevent a woman from voting, but they will prevent her from ever becoming a man, and they point the way to the fact that women's efficiency lies in a special field and not that of political initiative or judicial authority in a community's organisation.'
In our more enlightened age, we may judge his conclusions to be offensive and incredibly ignorant. (I love the way he identifies the possibility that women aspire to become men) but, are the conclusions we now draw any better?
It is easy to use the brain activation maps (technical term: blobology!) to appear conclusive, and to support male/female difference in activation. This is lazy and dangerous science. Functional imaging technology averages over a few seconds the activity of literally millions of neurons that can fire up to a hundred impulses a second. 'Using fMRI to spy on neurons is something like using Cold-War-era satellites to spy on people: Only large-scale activity is visible', says Science journalist Greg Miller.
Neuroscience has been used to sensationalise concepts of gender difference. The thousands of papers and reports which draw the conclusion that men and women's brains are the same lie in filing cabinets and computer hard drives, unread and unexamined. The very few which identify differences have become famous, celebrities in their own right. This is because the identification of difference sells books. If we are all the same, there aren't such attention-grabbing book titles:
'Men are not from Mars, and women aren't from Venus, they're both from the same planet'.
'Men can listen and women can read maps'.
'Men ands women like straight lines and polka dots'.
'Women and men can skim stones'.
For me, modern neuroscience has thus far identified one definite difference between our brains - on average men's are slightly larger and weigh a little more. This is because men are on average slightly larger and heavier, doh!
The ability, function, intelligence, emotional response of men and women's brains are exactly the same. This is actually a very liberating statement. The next set of best sellers need to be along these lines:
'There is no difference between men and women when it comes to aspirations and attainment'.
'Men can multitask, women can be focused'.
'Women are just as good at science'.
'Men can express their emotions'.
'Men, stop using neuroscience to excuse your bad behaviour'.
Neuroscience should be helping us move towards gender equality, by focusing on the similarity rather than the difference. It can encourage both genders in the development of genuine dialogue and mutual support. Men are not the same as women, but we are not as dissimilar as we are being led to believe.
This article owes a huge debt to Cordelia Fine and her phenomenal book 'Delusions of Gender'.