50 shades of grey matter

The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain by Gina Rippon - cover pic

Professor Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist, has written a book called The Gendered Brain. I’m currently very pre-occupied with what people believe about sex and gender, and my partner’s very interested in neuroscience so of course we went along to Rippon’s talk at Conway Hall.

The Hall was packed, the guys setting up the stage looked nervous, and the Conway Hall guy who introduced the talk gave us a bit of a third degree about keeping calm and being respectful. Is that what normally happens at academic lectures? Why was he doing that now?

Professor Gina Rippon, Aston University Brain Centre
Professor Gina Rippon

The subtitle of Professor Rippon’s book is The neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain. Ah ha. Controversial indeed. As it happens, the day before the lecture, someone sent me a link to a study that appeared to demonstrate differences in male and female brains, and I said I’d ask about it if I got a chance.


The main theme of Professor Rippon’s talk was about how to read science, or what we take from it – as well as how we read and what we take from our life experience. She told us that, from the very beginnings of science, anyone who’s known to be studying human brains is regularly petitioned by people asking for evidence that people they consider inferior have different brains. For a long time, it was “show us that black people have inferior brains” often, it’s been “show us that women have inferior brains.”

The net result is that we could use a good few scientists working full time on refuting the declarations (normally headlined Proof at Last! in the media) that a particular group have a different kind of brain. (I suspect the problem is that there is plenty of funding and plenty of media interest, and there are plenty of career opportunities offered, to scientists who can demonstrate desired differences, however tenuously.)

‘Neurotrash’ of the pink brains, blue brains variety has been so prolific lately that Gina Rippon got together with Cordelia Fine and Daphna Joel to produce some advice about recognising and refuting it.

Predictive, plastic, permeable

Professor Rippon’s view is that every brain is different, that everyone’s brain changes according to what they experience and how they use it – even before birth. She says that it is possible to sort brains into types, based on data that scientists are now able to gather (without cutting people up!) She says that there is more than enough evidence that the perceived differences between male and female humans are caused by their respective biology and the differences in social reactions to boys and girls. Most of the time, the differences neuroscience picks up between male and female brains are those brains’ reactions to said biology and society.

Occam’s Razor applies

Having worked with autistic and schizophrenic people, Rippon has been far more impressed by the differences in individual people who are grouped under any one label than by the similarities, or apparent similarities (remember, the brain is nothing if not the master sorting-and-patterning machine – it can overdo ‘similarities’ as well as ‘differences’) and she has found far more profound and interesting differences to study than those between male and female brains.


Contway Hall talkThe Times has just published yet another not-particularly-rigorous study that thinks it may have found a difference between male and female brains; said article is yet another of the ‘Proof at last!’ variety, this time because the observed differences were recorded before birth. And in the same period, there have been some most extraordinary ad hominem comments about Professor Rippon in all the major newspapers – the accusation in the Telegraph that she has an ‘equality fetish’ being a memorable one.

Expecting trouble

All in all, the topic is at fever pitch, and I began to understand why Conway Hall had been expecting trouble. We didn’t have any, other than a few squawks and squeaks when someone addressed a question to the Professor with the somewhat jeering preamble. “you clearly believe in biological bimorphism, but…”

I did spot a lesbian sitting in a chair – one of those very same lesbians who were turned out of an event recently for allegedly sitting in chairs in a threatening manner, but she didn’t do anything that scared us, so all went well, and if you have questions about brains and gender, I can heartily recommend Prof Rippon’s talks and I definitely suggest you get hold of a copy of The Gendered Brain – a fascinating, accessible and intelligently written work.

the gendred brainA book worth reading

And to top it all, Professor Rippon and her students have managed to retain a (non-threatening) sense of humour. It led to her students wanting stickers to place on copies of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus which would say, The author is from Uranus. It also led to Rippon asking her publisher if her book could be titled 50 Shades of Grey Matter. The publisher didn’t think the world had enough of a sense of humour to stand that so, perhaps for the best, the book was called The Gendered Brain.

Read it. It’s very good. Especially for anyone who’s ever been led to believe their brain (or body) isn’t suitable for whatever they happen to want to do with their lives.


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