The gender of the brain

Lots of talk in education circles recently about the fairly recent discoveries going on in brain research, how the brain works being translated into how people learn and unlearn, and some scientists (though not many yet) looking to what this might mean for how we teach.

One article this week, looks at the ‘gender’ of the brain, how girls think differently from boys, and how those differences, some of which protect girls from extreme risk-taking behaviour, may also limit girls in other ways, including the kind of risk taking that’s likely to lead to success in some areas. Another ‘visiting expert’ (I must add a tag to this blog with that title!) JoAnn Deak, says in the AGE this week that:

GIRLS must resist their brains’ innate biology if they are to be happy and successful, according to a visiting expert on neuroscience and learning. JoAnn Deak, a US psychologist told a group of year 8 and 9 girls at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar last week that the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which regulates survival reactions, is more active in girls, making them, on average, more fearful when faced with challenges.

Conversely, boys respond to threats with a surge of testosterone, which, she says, makes them more competitive and aggressive. While this can make boys restless during high-school years, Dr Deak says it can help when dealing with conflict in adult life. As a consultant to Outward Bound in the US Dr Deak says she has observed the different reactions of boys and girls to being lowered off a ledge on a rope. Boys tend to be less afraid, she says, as their prefrontal cortex, which mediates inappropriate risks and thinks about rational details, is not mature, plus there is a testosterone surge. In contrast, the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of girls becomes more active. “You can see them thinking, ‘I could become a quadriplegic’ and so they feel more fear.”

As well, she says girls produce oxytocin daily, which makes them care for others. Oxytocin is best known as the hormone that surges at childbirth. “The problem is that it can make them care about the opinion of their friends too much.” Oestrogen can make girls favour co-operation over competition. Dr Deak says these factors explain the paucity of female chief executives. “For many it is a rational decision of ‘why would I want to put myself in a situation of constant conflict?’. Yet for men it’s an exhilarating experience.”

My fear with some of this new brain based learning theory is that, like some of the kinds of ‘categorising’ and generalising I’ve seen in the past, that it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy; ‘oh, you would think like that wouldn’t you’ or worse, that we ignore the individual in our new knowledge which tries to make scientific the innately human interaction of how people think and learn.

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2 comments

  1. I share your fear about the impact of this sort of “professional update” intended to inform our new pedagogical strategies. I must add quite frankly, though, that we needn’t sit back and take it. My suspicion is that this is simply bad science, of the variety that when you check the sources, you find that their assertions are based on sand.

    Check out Mark Liberman’s devastating investigations into the “science” behind the bestselling book “The Female Brain” by Louann Brizendine, a book with a whole host of similarities to Deak’s talk. In particular her claim that “A woman uses about 20,000 words per day while a man uses about 7,000,” although repeated in the press hundreds of times in the last year, has gone down in flames as a complete fabrication. And so it goes with most of these “hot new research findings” into innate gender differences in the brain. Are there some new findings that are valid? Of course there are, but these are the last people we should be listening to for any assessment of what it all really means. Charlatans.

    Really, can’t we get some skeptical people with some B.S. detectors at these talks?

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003894.html

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/003668.html

  2. Thanks for the comments Charles; I really like the idea about ‘we needn’t sit back and take it’. One of the nice things I’ve begun to notice as we see the emergence of more and more edu-blogs is the the voice of the actual practitioner being heard more and more (see my latest post 1/9/2007 for two examples) Blogs allow the teacher voice to have some space; we don’t have to just sit and take it.

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