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Mindful : February 2016
attracted to men who are in touch with their feminine side, they scored higher on empathic accuracy than men who weren’t fed that line, found a 2008 study in the Journal of Personal- ity and Social Psychology. When asked how much they sympathize with peo- ple in distress, before a test of read- ing others’ emotions, men did much worse than women, perhaps because the question reminded them that real men don’t empathize. But scrub the sympathy question and instead offer $2 for correct answers, and the sexes performed equally. “ When it literally pays to understand,” as Fine put it in her wonderful 2010 book Delusions of Gender, “male insensitivity is curi- ously easily overcome.” One of my favorite examples of how our emotional abilities can be encour- aged or smothered involves how well people can work out others’ relation- ships from their interactions. When it’s described as a test of social skills, men do somewhat worse than women. When it’s described as a test of “com- plex information processing,” men do better. This stereotype effect extends to cognitive areas, too. Numerous studies have reported that men are better than women at mental rota- tion, or manipulating images in their heads. When researchers described mental rotation as linked to success in aviation engineering and nuclear propulsion engineering, men trounced women. When they described it as linked to dress design and needle- pointing, men’s performance plum- meted and women’s rose. The fact that supposedly sex-based talents like empathy and mental rota- tion are as changeable as the moon has implications for studies of brain signatures underlying emotional and cognitive skills. Since changing things like group membership can change performance, “this implies that the neural correlates will be contingent, too,” Fine told me. “In other words, you have not necessarily found ‘the’ sex difference in brain activation”—you have found only the brain signature that accompanies high or low performance in a specific social context. If neuroimaging finds differences in men’s and women’s brains, we shouldn’t be too quick to ascribe those differences to gender; it could instead be the brain activity correlated with “reading emotions accurately because you’re paid $2 per correct answer.” If performance is so malleable, why don’t more studies report that women are better than men on a “male” skill, and men better than women on a “female” one? It turns out publication bias (that is, studies purporting to discover some phenomenon are more likely to be published than studies failing to find one), which is common throughout psychology, “is greatly exacerbated in sex/gender research,” found a 2014 paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, citing studies going back 20 years. This field is “vulnerable to ‘loss’ of null results,” meaning that studies not finding sex- based brain differences are less likely to be published. “It is more interesting to find a difference than to find no difference,” pointed out neurosci- entist Melissa Hines of Cambridge University. So 19 “failures to observe a difference between men and women go unreported, whereas the 1 in 20 finding a sex difference is likely to be published.” That creates a mislead- ing impression of what experiments have found. Even basic anatomical studies, which you’d think would have less room for social influence, can be unintentionally biased. To take one example, popular accounts of sex dif- ferences in the brain claim that women have a larger corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the brain’s two hemispheres) than men. But that is likely the result of small sample size: Neuroimaging studies of sex-based brain differences usually have just a dozen or so participants, and when you measure small differ- ences in small structures in small sample sizes “‘discovering’ spurious differences” is all too easy, warned Danish neuroscientist Mikkel Wallen- tin of Aarhus University. But the ste- reotype of greater female cross-hemi- spheric connectivity is as impossible to dislodge as a burr from fleece. The reverse is also true: Studies that support sex-based brain differ- ences get tons of media attention, as a 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did. It measured connections in the brains of 949 young people (aged 8 to 22). On average, male brains had greater connectivity within each hemisphere, while females had greater connectiv- ity between brain hemispheres, the scientists said. The scientists’ con- clusion: Male brains are optimized for communication within hemi- spheres, giving them an advantage in specialized tasks such as higher math, while women’s are optimized for communication between hemi- spheres, allowing them to bring their famed intuition to bear on those pesky analytical tasks. There wasn’t a peep about whether such anatomi- cal differences, even if true, reflected not innate, hardwired differences but boys’ and girls’ different experiences in life: playing sports, pursuing differ- ent hobbies, being treated differently by society. “The study offered no information about the developmental origins of variability,” Fine said, but was “presented in the popular press as evidence that ‘hardwired’ sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Given that the brains scrutinized for sex-based differences have lived many years in societies with clear messages about what it means to be a male or a female, it will be interest- ing to see how our brains change as (or if?) gender stereotypes become anachronisms. ● Supposedly sex-based talents like empathy and manipulating images in our heads are as changeable as the moon. It depends on how you frame the question. 20 mindful February 2016 brain science