One of the most regularly recited pieces of popular neuroscience is that women are more likely to use both hemispheres of the brain to process language while men tend only to use one. It turns out, this is a myth – it is simply not supported by the current evidence.
In 2008, a meta-analysis study looked at all the evidence for differences in the balance of language processing in the brains of men and women. It looked at studies on sex differences in handedness, brain structure, on perception of words heard exclusively in the left or right ears, and neural activity recorded by brain scans during language tasks.
When you look at all the studies together, there are no reliable sex differences in word processing or language-related brain activity. Men and women did not differ in how their brains processed language.
I came across this study from a fantastic talk by neuroscientist Lise Eliot, author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain that tackles many of the sex difference stereotypes.
She notes how an initial study, published in Nature in 1995, did find results in line with the common myth, but that these results were not replicated.
At the time, however, they got widely publicised – making headlines around the world – and they remain the basis for the common claim despite numerous subsequent studies that suggest this is not the case.
This, notes Eliot, is a common pattern in sex difference research. Results that confirm our steroetypes get widely reported, others are largely ignored by the media.
I really recommend her talk over at Fora.tv and I will look forward to reading the book once I get my hands on a copy.
Link to Lise Eliot on Fora.tv (via Channel N).
Link to PubMed abstract for damning meta-analysis.
2 thoughts on “Men are from Earth, Women are from Earth”
This is a fascinating talk. In particular, the finding you have picked out that “Results that confirm our steroetypes get widely reported, others are largely ignored by the media.”
I wish we could get this information to more people. There are so many myths about what men and women, boys and girls, are like. The problem is that policies end up being based on bad science.
It would seem this information is getting out, albeit more slowly than when it is spread via broadcast media.
However, I disagree about it being ‘bad science’. I would say it is more like irresponsible media. The academic community knows to take these findings with a grain of salt, hence peer reviews. Therefor, policies tend to be based, or rather influenced, more on media popularization than on actual scientific research.
Unfortunately, the alternative resolution to this problem is regulation of the media, which is a bad idea on many levels. Regardless, issues like this do tend to resolve themselves in time because the ‘truth’ is leaked out and passed along in channels such as this blog and then via word of mouth. It is an inefficient process, but it does eventually correct popular misconceptions.