Two genders divided by a common brain

The idea that women like pink because it made them better able to pick berries is nonsense
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The Independent Online

In a classic "dog bites man" story that you may have missed, another neuroscientist has announced after decades of research that male and female brains are not "hardwired" differently. Gina Rippon, a professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, has been studying the human brain since 1975. She'll be talking at the British Science Festival this afternoon in Birmingham, and as a teaser she revealed the truth that some people still find incredible: there are no significant innate differences between men's and women's brains; boys are not born better at map reading; girls are not uniquely capable of listening. In other words, male and female brains can achieve the same things, if they are allowed to.

Inevitably this news has met with indifference in some circles, and derision in others. "Could we get a second opinion from another neuroscientist... a man purhapes [sic]?" asked one online commentator (a man), clearly unaware that a) Professor Rippon's announcement was based on science, not just opinion; and b) she is not the first scientist to come to the same conclusion.

Other armchair neuroscientists took issue with Professor Rippon on the particulars. Whereas the professional brain scientist said: "The idea that women like the colour pink because it made them better able to pick berries" was "nonsense", a man called Lee insisted that "women were content to pick berries... as their contribution just as they are now content to pick ready meals from the supermarket shelf". Wow! On the one hand, we have decades of scientific investigation and on the other hand, Lee. A balanced debate, then.

One of many neuroscientists who agree with Professor Rippon is the American Dr Lise Eliot. Like many experts, she acknowledges that small innate differences exist; but she says that their significance is often grossly exaggerated. (Particularly by the media, which give great prominence to any findings of differences, but go "yeah, well, whatever" when no differences are found. Publication bias, it's called in science. "Man bites dog", in journalism.) "Scientists have identified very few reliable differences between men's and women's brains," she says, "much less between boys' and girls'."

Both Rippon and Eliot are keen to inform the public about brain "plasticity" – a concept which explains how experience literally shapes the brain. We've all heard about the taxi driver's hippocampus, which grows more grey matter while doing the Knowledge. Rippon has described how playing Tetris can change the brain's "wiring" and improve the spatial ability of children. Any observable brain differences in adults cannot, then, be attributed to "nature", when "nurture" has had years to take effect.

Professor Rippon's talk today will focus on how understanding the brain will help Britain. "We need more trained scientists and engineers but 50 per cent of our pool of talent is not engaging," she says. Purhapes if they are really good at listening, they'll start.