What neuroscience really tells us about “Gender and our Brains”


Our featured FHOM (female human of the month) this March is Gina Rippon, Author of “The Gendered Brain” and “Gender and our Brains”.

March is Woman history month. Instead of featuring great women throughout history – of which there are countless that we would love to feature – this year we wanted to highlight a woman who is actively changing history for women. Gina Rippon is a British neurobiologist and feminist who is determined to make away with the cliché that women’s brains work differently than men’s.

With great humor and ‘slanderous dismissal of neuro trash’ she supersedes outdated rhetoric that women are “perhaps a bit emotionally label but have all the necessary qualities to make her womanly companion of a man and good wife and mother” which was still prevalent throughout the 18th and 19th century before humans were able to look at the brain. This was only underlined in more recent oratory with headlines like “why men don’t cry, and women can’t read maps”, which many studies in the 1990s liked to use, once scientists were able to scan the brain and thought that they could finally explain the differences between men and women. Indeed, these studies did make out differences in brain structures, further manifesting the belief, that men and women have different anatomies, and that there is no way to change that.  

The problem with this research, so Gina Rippon explains in her books, these researchers were not really impartial during their experiments. Rather, they already embarked on the research, with the preconceived idea, that there was a difference and they just had to find it.

Different scientists often found different variations in brain structures but ignored that in actuality there was no consistent divergence in female and male brain architecture. They also dismissed the fact that these discrepancies were miniscule. In the end, it seems that brains are much more similar than different, but these types of headlines did not get published.

All this led Gina Rippon to evolve the original question from why women’s and men’s brains are different to what might be causing these differences.

With that, she challenges people to take a look at the world they are living in.

She found, that already at the early stages in life, human babies start to pick up social cues. Within hours of being born they react differently to different faces compared to scrambled images. Within days they respond differently to their native language than a language from another country.

The so called 3ps are factors that can change the structure of a human’s brain.

First, brains are predictive coders. This means, while a human brain is similar to a machine, constantly processing a huge amount of information, it is now a known fact that brains also make predictions when faced with different scenarios to determine which action should be taken. Another part of the brain, where behaviors are processed, assesses that prediction along with the correct behavior and then decides which action to take. In other words, expected behavior influences actual behavior.

Second, our brains are flexible, or “plastic”. Every experience a person has gone through can alter that person’s brain structure, throughout that person’s life. The idea that the brain is set after a certain age has been disproven. The belief that ‘men are better at spatial awareness than women’ may therefore only be true because as children men and women are given different toys that develop different parts of the brain. This is most likely the differences that scientists back in the 1990s found and determined as sex differences, which we now know is purely circumstantial.

Last, our brains are permeable. They do not just process the information itself, but they are also aware of social information. The brain will solve problems within the situational and social context it has been given. Brain scans have shown that you can influence the performance of someone solving a problem before they have even begun solving if you tell them you think they will be good (or bad) at it.

In a similar fashion, bad experiences can have a huge influence on our brain structure. Gina Rippon explains in her books that a blow to someone’s confidence or a mistake they made activates the same part of our brains that process physical pain. Therefore, lack of belonging and the feeling of rejection could be what Ribbon calls “powerful drivers in the brain”.

This is all to show that the world around us can have a huge influence on the way we think and act, physically determined by the brain and in consequence it is thus crucial that we do not ignore things that could lead to unequal development between the genders.

Gina Rippon emphasizes the fact that we live in a gendered word.

Even before we are born, gender plays a huge role, with gender reveal parties being thrown, and pink and blue toys prepared for our arrival to the world. Already in 7 year olds, there is a significant difference in self esteem between girls and boys, which is only underlined by school environments that reiterate that boys and girls are different.

The overall message that our female human of the month has found throughout her research is that “a gendered world produces a gendered brain”.

Interested in reading her books?

You can also listen to the author herself talk about her research:

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