Challenging myths on sex, gender and the brain: International Women’s Day at Radboud University

By Michelle Harthoorn and Susanne Lehmann 

The brain has been and still is a focal point for research on sex/gender differences in the body, and the results of many of these studies have been (and to some account still are) used to explain or even justify inequality. But how biologically different are men and women really? Do distinctions between female and male behavior emanate from their respective  brain structures or hormones, or are the brains the ones that adapt in response to contexts and experiences? 

Two inspirational researchers on the matter, dr. Annelies Kleinherenbrink and prof. dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young, set out their findings and views in their lectures in the light of International Women’s Day on Monday March 9, 2020. 

At the Aula, a ceremonious building at the university, guests were welcomed at the entrance and guided towards the right room. Here, the atmosphere was festive in a respectful and modest manner. The place was almost completely filled with people who had come together to listen to a lecture by dr. Annelies Kleinherenbrink, postdoctoral researcher Cultural Studies, foreworded by prof. dr. Marieke van den Brink, full professor and chair of the Gender & Diversity network. 

‘Sex, gender and the brain: myths and challenges’ 

The myth of ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ brains 
The difference between women’s and men’s brains is a popular subject for science and media alike. Research findings are not uncommonly accompanied by ‘aha’-statements and Venus and Mars clichés along the lines of ‘that explains everything, men and women are just ‘hard-wired’ differently!’. 

Neurological research on sex differences dates back as early as 1875, when William Alexander Hammond, acclaimed as the first American clinical neurologist, set out to prove the inferiority of the female brain, a common opinion at the time. Based on what he found – women’s brains were smaller and had less grey matter for instance – he concluded that women must be intellectually inferior and thus not mentally suited for studying or voting. His study found a wide audience and long remained influential as an argument to invigorate the existing unequal status quo.  

Helen Hamilton Gardener, well-educated writer and lecturer, was a fierce opponent to Hammond’s notion of the inferior female brain. Around 1888, she publicly challenged the biases in his research methodology and his unfounded claims that brain weight and amount of grey matter determine intelligence.  

The notion of women’s intellectual inferiority might have lost ground – although some parts of the myth, like girls being worse at math, still prevail -, a considerable difference between male and female brains are still presumed to explain the mystery that is sex/gender. Still, much like Hammond did in his research, blurring the line between research findings and assumptions continues to occur. Sometimes researchers themselves make groundless statements, such as the discovered variances being congenital. Other times, the media covering the research findings jump to these conclusions in their attempts to convey the message to the general public. Nuances can get lost in translation, because journalists and editors are encouraged to produce titillating content and titles. Especially the way in which graphs and certain words are deployed can be greatly delusive. 

More and more researches show that rather than a ‘pink’ and ‘blue’ brain, it’s more like a one-off multi-colored patchwork. See for example: Ted Talk: Daphne Joel, Are brains male or female?

The paradox of the plastic brain 
In a society that holds up the ideal of constantly striving for individual development and improvement, that bombards you with messages such as ads promising the solution on how to achieve this, it is hard to think of the brain as static and unchangeable. If you work hard enough – and use our products – you can learn to be smarter and happier! On the other hand, if we talk about sex/gender, still the brain is commonly deemed predetermined by birth to develop in a certain way during childhood and to remain largely unchangeable during adult life. Recent developments in neurology, specifically on neuroplasticity, have found great adaptability of the adult brain over time and in response to experiences, in a very literal and physical sense: the connections in the brain and the amount of gray matter alter. 

From a young age on, actually from before we are even born, people are divided into either male or female and are treated and expected to behave as such. All these gendered experiences could shape our brains into what is regarded as ‘female’ or ‘male’. Annelies Kleinherenbrink does not set out to deny brain differences between men and women, nor to claim social factors explain all. These influences, however, should not be overlooked or ignored. 

While the notion of the plastic brain could have the potential to dismantle myths that maintain gender stereotypes, it could also be adopted to reinforce them. One needs only to think of ‘gay conversion therapy’ to see how the idea that something is changeable, can quickly turn to attempts to actually change them in order to ‘fix’ the deviance from the norm. Adaptability, thus, raises important questions on whether deliberate manipulation could or should be achieved, and most importantly, in what way. 

For more on neuroplasticity and sex/gender (in Dutch), see also ‘Plasticiteit in beeld: Feminisme en het veranderlijk brein’, Raffia 2015: volume 27, issue 2 (digital republication).

Lunch 

After the lecture, a well-organized lunch had been served for the guests, consisting of pumpkin soup and different sandwiches, fruits and drinks. 20% of the meals contained meat, while 80% was vegetarian. Michelle was excited that both the soup and one of the sandwiches were vegan (and, dare I say, the vegan sandwiches were the first to be gone from the buffet). ‘If there is a feminist event, you can count on vegetarian food,’ Susanne remarked with a wink. 

Misconceptions on testosterone 

In the evening, the lecture given in English by socio-medical scientist prof. dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young about the misconceptions on testosterone was a nice addition to the lecture by Kleinherenbrink earlier that day. This lecture took place in a less formal building on campus: a lecture hall of the Collegezalencomplex. The room filled up almost completely with guests of all genders, ages and nationalities, who sat down in the seats as if they were students following one of their classes. After the lecture, a discussion was held between Jordan-Young and historian dr. Stefan Dudink, which was moderated by philosopher dr. Simon Gusman. At the end, the audience could ask Jordan-Young questions about her work. This final part of the day was organized in cooperation with Radboud Reflects, so a Dutch report by Simon Jacobs on the evening can be found on the website of Radboud Reflects or here.  

Similar to the lecture by Kleinherenbrink, Jordan-Young’s lecture addressed myths that reinforced the differences between men and women. In this case not regarding the brain, but hormones, specifically the so-called ‘male sex hormone’ testosterone and everything it is supposed to be and make men do. Before examining how misconceptions about testosterone are relevant today, Jordan-Young talked about the history of the hormone and the magical qualities that were ascribed to it. In 1889, for example, scientist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard claimed he had made an elixir that rejuvenated his body and, thus, made it more ‘manly’. The elixir consisted of water, blood and liquids from the testicles of dogs and guinea pigs, including sperm. His experiments have since been debunked, but the idea that there is a magical, manly liquid in testicles remained. After its identification in 1935, testosterone became the sign of manliness. 

Currently, testosterone is often brought up as a reason for aggression and sexual violence by men, among others. It is utilized to explain the social differences between men and women. This idea is not only present in everyday thought to justify certain actions and decisions, for instance by xenophobic politicians who use testosterone as an excuse not to accept certain people to the country, but also in scientific research. The idea that testosterone is the male sex hormone and all its associations highly determine what data is considered to be relevant by researchers and how this date is interpreted, as found by feminist researchers. In this way, myths about testosterone are not challenged, but reinforced. With this Jordan-Young does not mean to say that research concerning testosterone is untrue. She, however, does mean to convey that we should be conscious of the social constructs that operate within scientific research. The message that she sent her listeners home with was therefore to be critical of myths about testosterone and their connection to the social construct of manliness. 

A plentiful celebration of International Women’s Day 

The program definitely provided food for thought and there were plenty of options: in terms of time (morning-afternoon-evening), language (Dutch-English), food (vegan-vegetarian-omnivorous), cost and application (free for a smaller audience with first come first serve principle – broader audience with an entrance fee), making it accessible for a large number of people. The critical analyses of both speakers were inspiring and well-expressed, making you re-think all you think you know about the brain. 

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