Friday, 18 July 2008

Science Bit

A study in The Independent today claims that men’s and women’s brains are more significantly different from one another than previously thought. There are now thought to be substantial differences in size in parts of the brain that control things such as spacial awareness, pain suppression, mental health and emotional memory. Scientists are claiming that this is proof that men and women behave in different ways for physiological reasons alone and that these differences have nothing to do with external social factors.
A C Grayling, professor of Philosophy says “this discovery does not affect just the difference between the sexes, but also different populations, and different ethnicities which have different propensities to illness and disease. For instance, we treat children differently from adults, so it's not surprising that we might treat Europeans differently from Asians, men differently from women.” Hmmm. Interestingly, he is the only “expert” quoted in the article who appears to not question what the study means for gender relations. The general consensus among those interviewed is that it would be short-sighted to lend too much weight to what is essentially a small study. Making conclusions about studies such as this can only serve to reinforce stereotypes, and there is no evidence to show that parts of the brain aren’t changed and manipulated through life and so may be reflect social experience. Psychologist Oliver James says: “It is pure speculation. The size of different parts of the brain can be affected by childhood experiences. For example, a woman who was sexually abused as a child has, on average, 5 per cent less mass in her hippocrampal region than a woman who was not sexually abused.” Phillip Hodson makes a good comment too: “I do not believe that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus.’ We are all from Earth.” The age old argument of ‘Nature versus Nurture’ is again in full flow. Does social experience affect the way the brain has evolved, or are our societal codes governed by the fact that women have different physiological capabilities to men? I think this could turn into a chicken and egg debate. It would be naïve to claim that men and women do not differ in their physical make-up – they do (and interestingly enough, Spare Rib founder Rosie Boycott backs this up in the article) – but when studies like these appear to be backing up the way men and women are perceived and treated it is slightly worrying. We need to be aware that there are discrepancies between the physical make up of males and females but we should also remember that we are talking about the brain, an extremely complex organ about which we actually know next to nothing. As human beings advance and evolve more, we become better equipped to start questioning norms about why men and women behave and aren’t treated equally - ironically perhaps our brains will allow us to overlook their differences from one and other - confusing! Judi James says: “I think instead of trying to categorise differences we should celebrate diversity and people's individuality and their quirks, rather than looking at whether they are male or female. I find evidence like this tends to create stereotypes.” There can be no ‘justification’ for the inequality that has and still is being faced by women. It’s a question of opportunity not capability. Interestingly enough, and something that will no doubt fuel further scepticism