Book Review – The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain.

The Gendered Brain By Gina Rippon, Professor of cognitive neuroimaging at the Aston Brain Centre, Aston University, Birmingham. Published by the Bodly Head, 2019.

In The Gendered Brain, Gina Rippon take us back to the roots of where we are today, tracing our earliest attempts to measure brain difference between the sexes.

Scientists have had a seemingly persistent fascination with mapping sex differences within the brain. Is skull capacity the answer?  How about women’s hormones? Should we look to psychology? The so-called female brain has, for centuries, been described as cognitively deficient, evolutionarily inferior, under-developed and generally not as good as a man’s brain. The implications of this cannot be underestimated.

We continue to live in an incredibly (neuro)sexist world where presumed brain differences between men and women have contributed to what Rippon terms “whac-a-mole” myths. So-called ‘truths’ such as ‘boys like blue’, ‘girls like pink’, ‘men are better drivers’, ‘women can’t read maps’ and [you can insert your own myth here] have been thoroughly discredited in the twenty-first century, despite them popping back up everywhere.

One of the major advancements in recent years has been the realisation the brain is much more ‘pro-active’ with respect to information gathering than we had first realised. As Rippon (119) herself elaborates:

The key issue here is that how our brains determine the way in which we respond our world, and how that world responds to us, is much more entangled with that world than we used to think. Brain differences (and their consequences) will be as much determined by what is encountered in the world as by any genetic blueprint of hormonal marinade, so understanding the differences (and their consequences) will necessitate a close look at what is going on outside our heads as well as inside.”

Our powerful brains are finely tuned to predict “scripts” about our social world, allowing us access to a whole range of expectations about how someone will behave. Given the “gendered waters in which we swim”, this is particularly salient point. Rippon draws upon babies to illustrate this. She highlights how, from birth, baby boys and girls are surrounded with attitudes and expectations that will ensure well-worn paths continue to be trodden.

One “whac-a-mole” myth here is that newborn baby girls engage in longer eye-to-eye contact than boys. However, firstly it hasn’t been possible to replicate these findings and, secondly, (167):

 “Another study showed that, although there were no sex differences at birth, if you looked at the same infants four months later, quite dramatic differences emerged. The frequency and duration of eye contact in boys remained much the same; in girls, it increased nearly fourfold.”

At a time when a baby’s brain will grow at astonishing rates, the gendered world we present them reads like a recipe for inequality. This really emphasises the need to continue challenging gender stereotypes in our everyday lives. Rippon writes how social and cultural factors have a much greater role to play than we perhaps previously thought.

At times, the detail with which Rippon unpicks the many studies on brain difference can feel fairly dense. However, given the complex nature of cognitive science this feels entirely appropriate. There remains plenty of beautifully written narrative throughout, keeping the reader entertained. Complication questions require complicated answers!

I wholly recommend this book, there is a lot to get through, but it really is worth it. Rippon is not the first to write about sex differences in the brain, and I am sure she will not be the last. Her unique contribution to this field appears to lie in connecting contemporary neuroscience to the gendered messages we receive from birth. This book might therefore be particularly useful to those working within the early years profession. It is a book I will be referring to for years to come.

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