Social sponges: Gendered brain development comes from society, not biology

Jean Mary Zarate: 00:04

Hello and welcome to Tales From the Synapse a podcast brought to you by Nature Careers in partnership with Nature Neuroscience. I’m Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at the journal Nature Neuroscience.

And in this series, we speak to brain scientists from all over the world about their life, their research, their collaborations, and the impact of their work.

In episode four, we delve into gender differences and meet a researcher who spent her career both discovering and debunking theories about the male and female brain.

Gina Rippon: 00:41

My name is Gina Rippon, and I’m Professor Emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, UK. And I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by trade. And I use a lot of brain imaging techniques to try and discover the relationship between the way in which the brain is working and unusual behaviour.

So I’m very interested in developmental disorders, such as autism. And I’m also interested in how brains get to be different. So not how all brains are the same, but really, what makes different people behave differently?

And as a consequence of that, almost invariably, once you start talking about brain differences, you get drawn into the issue of whether or not there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain.

Spending some time reviewing the research evidence for the notion that there is such a thing as a female brain, or such thing as a male brain, I discovered that actually, this well-established belief that there are two different kinds of brains doesn’t have a lot of sound research behind it.

So I got drawn into the whole issue of where differences come from in terms of if we look at gender gaps in the world, for example. And if there’s no evidence that there is such a thing as a male brain or a female brain, where do these differences come from?

And it linked with the work that I’ve been doing, sort of 21st-century approach to the brain, new findings about how the brain works and how the brain interacts with the outside world, and how the outside world has much more of a profound impression on the brain than we ever realized.

And I started looking at the influences in the outside world, which might have led to the differences we see in gender gaps, for example, and what people believe, you know, well-established differences between males and females.

So the book got to be called The Gendered Brain, because it was really the idea that if there are gendered influences in the outside world, and I would suggest that there are, then these would have differential effects on developing brains.

And it is those gendered influences that I think we should be paying a lot of attention to in trying to understand gender gaps, rather than assuming that these gender gaps have come from some essential (in the biological sense of the word) difference between males and females.

Gina Rippon: 03:21

I’ve always, apparently, been really fascinated by the brain. Even obviously, before I really knew what it was I’d obviously somehow got a hold of the idea of this particular part of the body, which was very important.

And there are stories that I used to trapan my teddy bears’ heads to see if they had brains. As I said, I’m not sure this isn’t a family myth.

But somehow I thought the brain is really interesting. And that’s what I want to do with my life. I was originally going to do medicine. For various reasons, I kind of got diverted into doing psychology.

But it was the kind of psychology which at that point was the beginnings of neuroscience, when I was interested in any aspect of behaviour which had some kind of biological underpinnings, and what the research was associated with that.

So that’s how I got into neuroscience. And my early interest in male and female brains, I have to confess, is because I was firmly signed up to the idea that there were differences between male and female brains.

And in terms of other myths, which have hopefully been dismissed, I was very interested in the idea that the right and the left hand side of the brain were responsible for different functions in human behaviour.

So I was a paid-up member of the male female brain brigade. And when I was setting up a new lab at the University of Warwick, which is where I first went to work. that was the basis of my research agenda. I wanted to find tasks that would reliably differentiate between males and females and show nice clear differences between male and female brains that I could then apply to the questions I was interested in.

Gina Rippon: 05:13

And it took me several years and a long struggle to realize that I was just not finding the kinds of differences I expected.

So I went and had a more thorough look at the research that was behind this and realized that it actually wasn’t very good research. A lot of it was based on straightforward assumptions.

There was never a question of, you know, do you have a male brain or a female brain? It was kind of given and from the end of the 18th century onwards, the “hunt the difference agenda” really informed what neuroscientists (what we now call neuroscientists) were doing at the time.

And also experimental psychologists, who were sort of weighing in with devising a go-to list of what males, the male way of doing things are the female way of doing things.

So once I reviewed that, I have to confess I sort of backed away from it and thought this isn’t an interesting question to be asking.

It might be interesting to ponder about, but in terms of my research activities, I should move away from this, which is what I did, and I got much more involved in other areas of interests such as dyslexia and autism.

Then when I moved to Aston in the year 2000 I became much more involved in the new, newly-emerging brain imaging techniques.

They had been around for about 10 years, but there was a whole new system at Aston, so much more involved in different ways of looking at the brain.

And at the same time, I was asked to review what neuroscience was contributing to, to the big issues of the time. And one of the areas I looked at was sex differences. There was a lot of debate at the time about the relationship between male and female behaviour.

And there were books, such as Simon Baron Cohen’s The Essential Difference, which suggested that there was some kind of biologically-determined difference between male and female brains.

And that would determine the roles, the kind of behaviour that they showed and the roles that they would have in society.

So I went back and had a look at the work that I’d looked at earlier and looked to see how the new neuroimaging techniques were being used in this debate, and was horrified to say that they were being used even more firmly to pursue this “hunt the difference” agenda.

And all the early work was looking for differences in males and female brains. And whenever one was found, you know, that became published and became a lot of interest in, in the mainstream press, for example, because brain imaging, certainly at the beginning of the century in 2000, 2010, or 12, was the source of great fascination to people.

And there were all sorts of publications linking the findings of neuroscience with these wonderfully colour-coded images which were being hijacked to some extent by perhaps the sort of self help gurus.

So a lot of work in those sorts of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus genre, were hijacking some of the images.

And I became very concerned about what was being claimed on the behalf of the neuroscience community, as did the neuroscience community itself.

So there was actually a, you know, a big move within neuroscience to say, we need to make sure that people understand what we’re really showing. And that it’s not this nice, what looks like a clear-cut window onto a real time brain working, and to make sure that people don’t draw the wrong conclusions from it.

So a very long story was how I got drawn back into looking at male and female brains, but more in terms of a kind of critical neuroscience perspective. And so that’s how I got into this.

Gina Rippon: 09:00

Certainly one of the areas that I addressed when I was researching for the book, in fact, was looking at the development of gendered behaviour in very, very young children.

And again, one of the things we’ve learned with the advent of new brain imaging techniques, is that very tiny babies are what I’ve called tiny social sponges.

You know, we always used to think that babies were pretty incompetent, because generally, cognitively they are, physically they are when they arrive.

And so we kind of assumed that applied to everything that a baby could do. But we now know that babies arrive with finely-tuned social radar in the world, and maybe even their social radar is picking up differences beforehand.

So from a very early age, you know, within hours of birth, children are responding differently to the sound of their native language, sight of a face, a human face, etc.

And very quickly, they’re starting to differentiate the face of a carer from other faces, and different kinds of sounds within their language structure.

So they’re picking up differences very early, but we now know they also pick up values attributed to those differences.

So within the first 18 months, two years of life, boys and girls are picking up that they are a particular person like this, and these are the kinds of toys that are given to play with. And this means that they are going to be good and enjoy these kinds of skills.

And other children are being given different kinds of toys. And they are picking up a message that these are the kinds of toys and skills, training opportunities that toys are offering, that they will be expected to play with.

And we have what I’ve called, or other researchers have called, junior gender detectists and children are very fierce gender detectists say very early on develop an idea:“This is what boys do. This is what girls do.”

And, you know, the arguments around the dressing-up box in nursery schools, for example, are quite fierce. You know, girls will say boys, like you know, don’t wear crowns and tiaras and dresses etc.

So this starts very early, which of course means that if we’re trying, you know, as adults to to address some of the kinds of issues, gender gaps that we’re interested in, we’re having to unpack a lot of both brain and behaviour conditioning, which has been going on from from day one.

And it is possible to show how boys and girls will respond differently to different gendered opportunities. So you can, for example, make neutral objects, you can paint them pink or blue, and see who decides it’s their kind of toy to play with.

And message pink seems to give girls permission much more powerfully. So they’ll be much more likely to play with a garlic press or a melon baller, for example, if it’s painted pink.

So there is some kind of already gendered bias in there with respect to how well different individuals respond to socialization, etc.

And we get to girls of six or, or even younger, who won’t play with games which had been described as being for really, really clever people, because they don’t think they’re really really clever.

So they will play with toys, which are (or games) which are devised for children who work really, really hard.

And we’ve got a nine year old, younger girl saying that maths is a boy thing. And so when I grow up, I won’t be a mathematician, because that’s what boys do. And we can monitor some of that at, at the brain level as well.

So that’s, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s a key issue. We have to realize this is around us all the time. And these tiny little social radars are twitching all the time.

Gina Rippon: 12:56

Another sort of concept that emerged in the 21st century, that our brain is not just something that’s useful for individuals and understanding how humans are successful because they’ve acquired amazing cognitive skills, like language and creativity and scientific ability, etc.

It’s also the fact that we humans are intensely social beings. And there is a model that, in fact, the success of the human race is much more to do with the fact that we solve problems collaboratively, we start to understand social norms, we can understand other people.

So we don’t just have a sense of self, we also have a sense of other people. And that means we can understand what other people might know, how they might behave, what they might be thinking about us, and what they might expect of us.

And we generate social scripts associated with that. So we’re constantly, as we did with the three P’s, we’re saying, “Well, you know, who am I? What kind of person am I? How do I fit into the outside world? You know, what is my tribe, if you like?”

So our brains are constantly monitoring the social environment. And some of the work that we’ve been doing in the lab is actually looking at the consequences, the brain level consequences of social experience.

And when I put together some of the tasks that I’ve been using, and the other people working in this area have been using, I start to think they were actually quite an unpleasant bunch.

Because what we tend to do is put people in the scanner and try and make themselves feel bad about themselves in terms of what kind of social information they’re getting from outside.

So for example, you can put somebody in the scanner and say, “I’d like you to envisage this particular situation. You’ve just received your fifth rejection letter in the post for a job that you were interested in. I’d like you really to think about what that should be telling you about yourself. So I’d like you to take a self critical view. How do you feel about this rejection? Do you think this means that you’re under-skilled or that you’re being over optimistic in terms of your own self view.”

Other ones you can do is to get somebody involved in a game within a scanner. And there’s a task called the cyber ball task, where you show somebody a sort of cartoon-like image of a video and say, “Okay, here’s a couple of cartoon characters throwing the ball to each other, they’re having a great time clearly enjoying playing this game. Now your image is going to pop up in this video, and they’ll start throwing the ball to you. And this is how you control it, etc.”

So you get this person involved in having this game with somebody else. And then all of a sudden, these other two characters start rejecting you, ignoring you, and they have been playing with you, and all of a sudden, they’ve stopped playing with you.

And whatever you do, you’re given various tasks to attract their attention, they ignore you completely.

And at the same time, people like me will be saying, “So I’d now like you to tick this self esteem box, you know, how do you feel now at this point of the game?” And even I’ve been in the scanner, and on this game, even though you know, it’s the game, you do start to feel a bit miffed and your social esteem, your self esteem score does go down.

Another very, this is not one of my tasks, a Tinder-type task, where you ask somebody to rate images of people they’d like to meet.

And then you say, “Well, I’m now going to show you the ratings of the people that you said you’d like to meet, how they rated you.”

And of course, it’s been rigged so that the ones who said you’d like to meet, generally say, this isn’t somebody I’d really like to meet, etc.

So, so effectively, you’re giving people negative social experiences, and their self esteem plummets, and you can see how particular areas of the brain are activated.

And the areas of the brain that are activated are, as one might expect, the emotional control centres. But also the frontal areas, you know, that they’re monitoring, self-reflecting on what this tells me about myself in terms of I’m being rejected, or people don’t like me, or whatever.

But there’s another part of the brain which bridges these two. It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex.

And I sometimes characterize it as a bit like a traffic light system, or a railway point system, where it’s monitoring the information that’s being received by the frontal cortex, and the emotional coding that’s being applied to this social experience that you’re having.

And if it’s a negative social experience it is much more likely that the red traffic light will be activated, it’s a very powerful inhibitory force.

So we’ll stop the kinds of behaviours that might have been consequent on this kind of social experience in real life. So you’ve got what I’ve called the inner limiter, which is effectively saying, “Last time you encountered an experience like this, it wasn’t great for you. So in satnav terms, if you like, do a u-turn when necessary.”

So what we’re now being able to look at is the consequences of the outside world in terms of socialization norms, if you like, or expectations, you know, what I call the “people like you factor” where people like you are good at these kinds of things, that’ll make you feel good.

People like you try and do these kinds of things don’t do very well, that’ll make you feel bad. So we’re starting to get an idea, starting to put brain imaging data, if you like, on this kind of framework of the outside-in model.

One of the areas that this model can be applied to is (a particular campaign of mine), and that is the under-representation of girls and women in science, and looking at the non-closing gender gap in this area over many years.

And one of the areas that I’ve been interested in is the claim that if you look at allegedly the most gender-equal countries, depending on for example, measures that the World Economic Forum takes every year. So think of Scandinavia and Iceland, etc. In those allegedly gender-equal countries, there is proportionally a much larger under-representation of women in science.

So this is known as the gender equality paradox, the idea that you level the playing field, and I use that term advisedly, because that’s how it’s been interpreted. You’ve got a nice level playing field for people in science, males and females.

And yet, women are turning away from science, or they’re choosing not to do science, etc. And this has nothing to do with competence, because the measures they take indicate that the males and females are scoring equally well on the kind of entrance exams that might be needed.

And we’re looking at the advent of a newer, what I call a new essentialist argument. Whereas moving away from the competence argument, saying women haven’t got the right kind of brains, they’re starting to say, women have biologically determined preferences.

And this is where we get that kind of “people versus things” choice emerging. And that’s why they’re choosing not to do science. So the idea is that, as I say, there is a level playing field, and yet women are somehow not becoming represented in science.

My counter to that is the idea of the outside-in model and saying just how level is the playing field?

If we know that negative social experiences will change the brains of anybody who encounters those in quite dramatic ways, very often in terms of inhibition.

So we see that if those areas of the brain that I was talking about earlier are activated, they’re associated with people with very poor self-image, people who talk about impostor syndrome, they feel that even if they’re successful, it’s only due to luck.

People have very high levels of self criticism, which, of course, was something we were deliberately manipulating in the scanner. And people who tend to withdraw from situations if they feel they’re likely to encounter a negative experience.

So I think we’ve got a model here of a better explanation, or certainly an explanation that should be looked at, in terms of cultural expectations. So it’s not that there’s something about the individual, which is turning them away from science.

It’s something about the culture, which is when an individual looks at that culture, will they be getting messages “Are there people like me in those sciences?” So if you look at role models, for example, and you’re looking at physics, or robotics or computer science, it’s very unlikely that you will see many people like you.

And you can also track all sorts of measures of success, or the reward systems or the promotion systems in different organizations, and find quite clear evidence of gender gaps.

So people who are trying to look at diversity and inclusion initiatives within organizations really need to be aware that the diversity aspect isn’t enough, it’s the inclusion aspect, which is really important, because our brains are wired to make a social. So if we’re feeling that we’re approaching an organization where we’re not going to be included, we’re not going to be rewarded, we may be constantly bombarded with what might be called banter about what people like you can and can’t do, then it’s much more likely that these people withdraw from that situation, they will not choose it. So I think that that’s an area where this is a kind of real life use of this model, which I think science should be looking at.

22:48 Jean Mary Zarate

Now that’s it for this episode of Tales From the Synapse. I’m Jean Mary Zarate, a senior editor at Nature Neuroscience. The producer was Dom Byrne. Thanks again to Professor Gina Rippon. And thank you for listening.

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