Pinker vs Spelke on gender determinism

spelke.pngA distinguished female biologist walked out when the Harvard President suggested that women were biologically less suited to science. The existence of such differences are now the subject of a heated exchange between psychologists Stephen Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the latest Edge debate.

pinker.pngThe topic is notable as despite its political importance, it is rarely informed by science, particularly as there are reliable differences in psychological abilities and brain structure between men and women.

Simon Baron-Cohen has become notable for arguing that there are fundamental differences in male and female thinking.

A recent study suggested however, that although there are obvious differences in brain structure, overall intelligence was not any different between the sexes. Some have speculated that such structural differences may reflect specialisations for particular skills.

In this regard, Pinker and Spelke make an interesting contrast. Pinker argues that such specialisations are largely inherited, whereas Spelke argues that they are more likely to be the result of sex roles and the influence of society.

The debate includes audio, video and text transcripts of the exchange.

Link to Edge debate on The Science of Gender and Science (via BoingBoing).

On female intuition

woman_eye.jpgA study conducted at the Edinburgh Science Festival has suggested that female intuition may be a myth, although this is contrary to speculation in a landmark paper in cognitive neuroscience.

Psychologist Matthew Lieberman published a paper in 2000, entited “Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach”, and discussed a possible biological basis for female intuition:

A review on intuition would be incomplete without reference to women’s intuition, the colloquial notion that women have a sixth sense or a more able intuition faculty than men. Like intuition itself, women’s intuition is often shrugged off as an urban myth. No strong antedote is offered here, but there are some interesting leads that fit within the scope of this article.

There is strong and consistent evidence that women are better encoders and decoders of nonverbal communication (Hall, 1984), and this evidence has frequently been cited as possible evidence of women’s intuition (Graham & Ickes, 1997). Additionally, the hormone estrogen, present in greater quantities in women than men, directly affects the amount of DA [dopamine] released into the striatum (Becker, 1990; McDermott, Liu, & Dluzen, 1994; Mermelstein & Becker, 1995; Van Hartesveldt & Joyce, 1986).

Greater DA release into the striatum in conjunction with reward should lead to the development of stronger representations of P [Predictor] -> R [Response] relationships that form more quickly, thus resulting in women’s intuition. Along these lines, Jennings, Janowsky, and Orwoll (1998) found that estrogen levels in women correlated with performance speed on a sequential learning task.

Link to story on female intuition from BBC news.
PDF of Lieberman’s paper “Intuition: a social cognitive neuroscience approach”.


Historian Anne Harrington discusses the public fascination with the lives of people with injured brains, recounted in books such as Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Alexander LuriaInterviewed on ABC Radio National’s All in the Mind, Harrington considers how these detailed case studies have influenced neuroscience, from early description by Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, to the variety of similar books available today.

These literary accounts have been christened ‘neuroanthropology’ by some, highlighting their focus on the effects of brain injury on day-to-day reality and human existence.

One of my favourites is a recent book by Paul Broks entitled Into the Silent Land (first chapter) that combines case studies, neuropsychology, philosophy of mind and a sometimes hallucinatory style.

Realaudio or transcript for All in the Mind interview with Ann Harrington.

Link to interview with Paul Broks from
Link to A.R. Luria archive, with audio and video.

Fantasy friends

While most children believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny at some point, researchers are now starting to discover that children’s fantasy worlds are more subtle than previously suspected, and may even last into adulthood.

An in-depth article from Science News Online examines a child’s understanding of fantasy characters and how imagination is being used to help children cope with traumatic and painful medical procedures.

One surprising finding is that although one third of 7-year olds seem to have imaginary friends, similar experiences can last into adulthood. Some professions may even rely on this experience to help their work.

Psychologist Marjorie Taylor interviewed 50 fiction writers ranging from an award-winning novelist to scribblers who had never been published. Of those authors, 46 provided vivid examples of made-up characters who had taken over the job of composing their life stories and who sometimes resisted their creators’ attempts to control the narrative. Some fictional folk wandered around in the writers’ houses or otherwise inhabited their everyday world.

Link to article from Science News Online.
Previously on MindHacks: Imaginary friends are linked to positive psychological development in children.

The fine art of neuroscience

This week’s issue of the science journal Nature has a number of articles on science and art. Sadly most are closed-access, although one gem is freely available.

An article by psychologist Patrick Cavanagh discusses the techniques of visual art and how they can inform neuroscience, particularly in understanding the construction of the visual system.

Artists use this alternative physics because these particular deviations from true physics do not matter to the viewer: the artist can take shortcuts, presenting cues more economically, and arranging surfaces and lights to suit the message of the piece rather than the requirements of the physical world.

In discovering these shortcuts artists act as research neuroscientists, and there is a great deal to be learned from tracking down their discoveries. The goal is not to expose the ‘slip-ups’ of the masters, entertaining as that might be, but to understand the human brain. Art in this sense is a type of found science – science we can do simply by looking.

If this is a topic that interests you, you could do a lot worse than tracking down the 17th March edition of Nature at your local library. The other articles in this series tackle links between science, poetry and music, to name but a few.

Link to Kavanagh’s article The Artist as Neuroscientist from

Test Your Synaesthesia

Dear Kathryn

I’ve been thinking about the way you see colours that go with each number, and also colours for each day of the week. It’s called synaesthesia- but you probably know that- and you seem like the have number-colour synaesthesia (which is common). There are other kinds like sound-colour synaesthesia or even sound-taste synaesthesia (people who get a taste whenever they hear certain sounds!). Anyway we were talking about it at Burning Man, maybe, or at Christmas, and I seemed to be able to guess the same associations between numbers and colours as you actually see, even though I know I’m definitely not synaesthetic (did you know that synaesthesia is much more common in women than men?). So I thought what I was probably doing was remembering a synaesthetic association from childhood (did you know that synaesthesia is far more common in children?), and that was how I was getting a colour for each number- from memory .

So, next thought, is there a way to distinguish between someone who just has a memory of an association- or is just imaging an association- from someone who really is seeing actual colours when they are shown numbers? Is there, in other words, a test we can do to check if you are really synaesthetic? And of course there is, so I thought I’d write to you and tell you about it and you can have a go.

Continue reading “Test Your Synaesthesia”

Studying the nose to understand bipolar disorder

Nerve cells from the nose are helping scientists study the neural basis of bipolar disorder, the condition often known as manic depression.


These cells, called olfactory receptor neurons, are located just inside the nose, and are similar in many ways to cells within the brain, but are easier (and safer) to get to.

The research team, led by Professor Chang-Gyu Hahn, examined how these cells reacted in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when compared to the same cells from people without the condition.

Calcium is an important part of how a nerve generates a signal (known as an action potential) and the olfactory receptor neurons from the bipolar group showed much less calcium activity than the control group.

This study provides important clues about how differences in neural signalling may be related to emotion and mood regulation, and describes an innovative approach to researching nerve signals in humans.

Link to write-up from
Link to study abstract.

The psychology and neuroscience of gifted children

The Boston Globe has an excellent article about the psychology of gifted children and how many of them have fared in adult life. It describes the difficulties some have in adjusting, and the importance of maintaining traditonal childhood activities.

Consider the contrasting fates of two prodigies from the early 20th century. Norbert Wiener entered Tufts University in 1906 at age 11 and went on to graduate studies at Harvard in 1909. That same year, a brilliant 11-year-old named William James Sidis also enrolled at Harvard. Wiener became the father of cybernetics. Sidis became a recluse who collected streetcar transfers. He died alone and disillusioned at the age of 46.

On a related note, neuropsychologist Brian Butterworth has studied brain activity in a ‘mathematical prodigy’, and found that compared to others, he used different brain areas to perform calculations.

Link to Boston Globe article (via Metafilter).
Link to paper (PDF) on Butterworth’s study of brain activity in a mathematical prodigy.

Are friends electric ?

The latest edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time was a discussion on the mind-body problem.

This is a problem which has taxed thinkers for millenia, and concerns the relationship between our thoughts and experiences, and the biology of the brain. Thinkers have questioned whether mind and brain are distinct in any sense, or whether the we should ultimately reject all talk of the mind and purely describe experience and behaviour in terms of the biology.

Biology, of course, breaks down to physics, and if we believe that all physical outcomes are determined by the prior state of the world, where does free-will come from ? Perhaps it is only an illusion and thoughts are simply unable to cause any biological changes. Thoughts may be like the squeak of a bicycle wheel – certainly produced by the system – but playing no causal role in its function.

Needless to say, the mind-body problem has implications for the understanding of consciousness and other important applications in day-to-day neuroscience.

Link to In Our Time webpage, with realaudio stream and mp3 download of the programme.


A reader writes:

I’ve recently discovered that I can play a video game while listening to spoken word audio (podcasts).

The game, AntiGrav, uses the body (via a cam which is interpreted as movements). It’s physically demanding and demands quick visual recognition and response– ie. flailing arms about and generally looking like an idiot. Terrific game.

The podcasts on the other hand are fairly intellectually engaging. However, I find that I cannot just sit and listen to them… I need to be doing something else. I can’t do programming work or read blogs/web pages, because I get overwhelmed by the two language-based inputs.

So I’m able to turn off the game music / effects and listen, while playing and do as well as I would listening to the game soundtrack.

This seems a suprising result, and I gather that they use different parts of the brain. Care to comment?

Good question – it is a little suprising that you can do both at once. I think the answer is not so much that they involve different input modalities (one visual, one auditory), but that the two tasks involve different types of processing which do not require a change of the ‘representational code’ between input and output.

Continue reading “Multi-tasking”