Will Working Mothers‚Äô Brains Explode?

A new journal, Neuroethics, has just launched and among the freely available articles is an engaging piece on ‘neurosexism’, the increasing trend to portray sex differences as ‘hard wired’ into the brain.

The piece is by psychologist Cordelia Fine who argues that some recent popular science books and articles are simply restating old stereotypes but making them sound more modern with an appeal to neuroscience.

Neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine’s book The Female Brain comes in for particular criticism, as it has in the scientific literature. But despite the fact it seems to play fast and loose with the scientific evidence, it has become an international best-seller.

Then, too, with the buzz-phrase ‘hard-wiring’ comes an extraordinary insistence on locating social pressures in the brain. In The Female Brain, for example, the working mother learns that she is struggling against “the natural wiring of our female brains and biological reality” (p. 161). According to Brizendine, combining motherhood with career gives rise to a neurological “tug-of-war because of overloaded brain circuits” (p. 160). Career circuits and maternal circuits battle it out, leading to “increased stress, increased anxiety, and reduced brainpower for the mother’s work and her children.” (p. 112).

But Brizendine promises her female readers that “understanding our innate biology empowers us to better plan our future.” (p. 159). It may startle some readers to learn that family friendly workplace policies are not the solution to reduced maternal stress and anxiety, and that fathers who do the kindergarten pick-ups, pack the lunch-boxes, stay home when the kids are sick, get up in the night when the baby wakes up, and buy the birthday presents and ring the paediatrician in their lunch hour are not the obvious solution to enhanced maternal ‘brainpower’.

No, it is an appreciation of female brain wiring that will see the working mother through the hard times. (Predictably, Brizendine never even hints that the over-wired working mother consider the simplest antidote to the ill-effects of going against her ‘natural wiring’: namely, giving her partner a giant kick up the neurological backside.)

Fine’s argument is not that that sex differences don’t exist in the mind and brain. Indeed, there are numerous scientific studies which have reported these.

The problem is that they are often portrayed in the popular literature as being ‘hard wired’ – an ugly analogy taken from computers that suggests that the difference is an innate and permanent feature.

Apart from ignoring the fact sex differences are typically only stable at the group level (meaning that this difference is not significant in any single male-female comparison) most of these claims about ‘hard wiring’ are not based on evidence about the innateness of the difference.

Actually, I’ve never been clear what ‘hard-wired’ is supposed to mean. Even if we presume that a particular behaviour or feature is coded in the DNA, the brain develops only through interaction with its environment – be this after birth, or in the womb.

In other words, most claims about a human ability being ‘hard wired’ ignore the history of how these develop through our lives.

The rest of the first issue of Neuroethics also looks fascinating, with article on neuroenhancement of love and lust, nanotech, neuroimaging and understanding others’ mind, to name but a few.

pdf or web version of Fine’s article ‘Will Working Mothers‚Äô Brains Explode?’.
Link to Neuroethics 1st issue table of contents (via Neurophilosophy).

One Comment

  1. alleycatsphinx
    Posted March 20, 2008 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    I suppose this reveals a bit of the machinery that powers bad scientific reporting. It’s much easier to appeal to already popularized ideas by tossing “scientifically proven” behind them, than trying to convey accurate and objective results.


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