What on earth is ‘brain sex’ ?

brain_sex_pic.jpgOn Sunday night, the BBC ran the first part of their Secrets of the Sexes series which claimed to rank the show’s participants by ‘brain sex‘, on a scale from 100% male brain to 100% female brain.

The trouble is, there is no objective measure of the sex of the brain, making the whole idea of ‘brain sex’ questionable.

During the show, a number of participants complete various tasks, and their performance allows them to be placed along the scale. The BBC even has an online test allowing you to rate yourself.

The rating of ‘brain sex’ seems to be based on Simon Baron-Cohen’s theory that males and females are likely to differ in skills he calls empathising and systemising.

Empathising is described as the ability to understand and relate to others’ emotions, systemising the tendency to understand things in terms of rules or component parts.

Females tend to score higher on Baron-Cohen’s test of empathising, and males on systemising. So how does this get transformed into the concept of a 100% male or female brain ?

Firstly, it assumes that Baron-Cohen is correct about his theory. This is a big assumption as it is still controversial. Among others, psychologist Elizabeth Spelke has noted several important objections.

Secondly, it involves making an absolute statement (e.g. ‘there is a 100% female brain’) from relative data – e.g. ‘females have a tendency to score higher on the empathising test’.

By using another test, however, alternative differences between males and females can be found. In other words, the rating of how ‘male’ or ‘female’ a person’s brain is, depends on what test is used – something which seems to rubbish the idea of describing any brain as a particular sex.

Instead of describing someone as having a ‘50% female brain’, it is more accurate to say, “compared to everyone else’s performance, on these tasks you scored mid-way through the range of typical female scores”.

Some might say the BBC are just trying to communicate science in a straightforward way, but consider how misleading this sounds: “You have a 50% female foot”. Oversimplified to the point of confusion.

Link to BBC ‘Secrets of the Sexes’ website.

One thought on “What on earth is ‘brain sex’ ?”

  1. The BBC programme on the sex of the brain stimulated interest in science in so far as it applied to stereotyping. It did not cultivate critical thinking or the application of scientific method. The use of small study samples and abnormal cases afforded to the viewer science as entertainment and not as a rigorous route to knowledge. The editing suggested begging the question while the sample groups carried out game-show type activities. “What governs individual brain development?” is a more fruitful question than the binary, journalistic “What makes men and womens’ brains different”.

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