Monday, February 25, 2013

Sex and brain differences

Embarking on the journey of reading "zillions" of papers for several different fields, amongst others emerges gender and stereotype threat as required areas. Organizing materials, I've crossed one of several MIT books - Sex and the Brain (Gillian Einstein, 2007). In a brilliant introduction, the author "sets the pace" for talking about sex and brain:

"(...) when purporting to show sex differences, let’s lay out what is meant when we use the expression ‘‘dimorphism’’ (...) that literally means ‘‘of two forms,’’ and this is an interesting formulation of sexual display in all its variations. It means that there are two forms of behavior, two forms of what things look like, two mechanisms underlying those forms: female and male. XX and XY. (...) This is a key concept in this field and underlies the interpretation of the science — that there are, indeed, two distinct forms."

If female and male sexual behaviors differ and behavior is mediated by the brain (via endocrine system), one hypothesis is "that just as the body has a phenotype, so does the brain" and the book includes a section building on that hypothesis. But, because much of making two sexes is a biological process, things do not always go according to plan and many research findings postulate that there "may be at least five sexes" and that it is a "disservice to nature to insist on only two".  
Sex differences and the brain are a sexy theme for so long!!
Einstein challenges the reader:"Ask yourself if, just like the rest of the body, diferentiation of the brain into two distinct types might not also be less likely. Attend to suppositions about what is ‘‘female’’ and what is ‘‘male’’ (...)."
People love to speculate about differences between the sexes, and neuroscience technology for brain imaging has boosted the number of studies published reporting sex differences in the brain structure and/or in patterns of neural activity.

But, as one of my MsC teachers once said "Please, not so fast!"
How to interpret sex differences in the brain can be a problem and "you need to understand that neuroscience is only at the beginning of understand how neural activity brings about complex psychological phenomena" he said. And looking quite worried, he continued "Do not fall in the temptation, to which some popular writers have been vulnerable to, of using gender stereotypes to bridge that gap in scientific knowledge. Do not fall on temptation of getting an answer the the age-old question “Why can’t a woman think or act like a man?” (or vice-versa).  Do dare instead to ask; should they? must they? why? You now acknowlegde that XX and XY are two distintic forms with own distintive behaviors, so think back on how behavior - even sexual - is situational and influenced by other so many other cues."