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When Harry’s Brain Met Sally’s – How Boys and Girls Develop
They’re the sort of questions that countless parents have asked themselves at one time another. What makes our girls and our boys seem so dramatically different from one another? Is there a girl gene responsible for “sugar and spice and everything nice” and a corresponding boy gene for “frogs and snails and puppy dog tails”? Or is it the environment — those prim-and-proper tea parties vs. those rough-and-tumble wrestling matches — which pull the sexes in opposite directions from such an early age?
Some of us have accepted the differences between our girls and our boys as a given, many others have struggled against it, and not a few of us have wondered about our own hand in making it so. How critical is that first blue or pink jumpsuit in the life of a baby, the toy airplane mobile hanging above its crib compared with the beatific teddy bear beside it – and how much does all that amount to when paired against the confluences and constraints of human biology? The Nature vs. Nurture question is one that has captured our attention for centuries and continues to fascinate us to this day.
In certain circles however, it’s a question that can be hazardous to your professional health. Take the case of recently appointed senior White House economic adviser Larry Summers. When Summers last made national headlines, it was in 2006 as the first president in the illustrious 370-year history of Harvard University to be forced out of the school’s chief administrative post. His sin was nothing quite as juicy or salacious as sexual indiscretions with a junior faculty member, plagiarism, or secretly rooting for Yale’s football team at The Game.
Rather, Summers committed the unforgivable academic crime of wondering out loud (at an economics conference, no less) whether the female and male brain might be naturally predisposed towards different types of thinking. Within a few hours of his presentation at the conference, the writing was already on the ivy-covered walls. His resignation was a foregone conclusion.
A Legitimate Question? Academic politics not withstanding, though, the question seems a legitimate one. There are clearly biological differences between men and women (vive la difference!), so might it not also be the case that the sexes think differently from one another?
The sparks really start flying when politics enter the mix. If we could scientifically prove that the average woman were better than the average man at performing certain mental tasks or vice-versa, would we consequently be locked into policy decisions based on that knowledge, forever pigeon-holing the sexes into gender-specific roles?
The answer should be a resounding “NO”, especially when we remember that we are talking about averages. There is so much variability within the human population, male and female alike, that it would be extremely foolish to assign anyone to a specific career based upon their sex, height, eye-color, or any other single physical trait. Many would make the same argument regarding SAT scores – their predictive power for how someone will perform in a specific profession or academic field are poor at best.
To highlight the argument, let’s take the case of male professional basketball. The average height in the NBA is 6’6″, and height definitely does confer many advantages on the court. Based upon this singular physical characteristic, we might be tempted to professionally assign every male in America, 6’6″ and taller, to the NBA. But what percentage of these titans are actually good enough to play professional basketball? The answer is very few. On the other hand, there is no shortage of All Stars and NBA Hall-of-Famers who are much closer to the national height average and a few that are below that average. No matter what the averages say, variability in many different human qualities makes stars out of seemingly unlikely prospects.
Back to brains. While the average male and female brain are remarkably similar in structure, brain scanning and MRI technology have enabled us to discern some small but demonstrable differences between the two. For example, the average male adult brain when compared with its female counterpart has a slightly larger cerebrum and a larger amygdala, a small structure in the center of the brain associated with processing fear and emotion. The female brain contains thicker connective tissue that allows for more communication between the two brain hemispheres.
Could these very subtle structural differences cause discrepancies in the way men and women learn, laugh, and love – differences in the ways that a Harry and a Sally see and interact with their respective universes? And are these differences biologically predetermined, or are they changes that develop over time — the cumulative result of many years of either “thinking like a man” or “thinking like a woman”?
Toy Trucks, Toy Dolls, Toy Guns Over the last half century, the trend in the scientific world has been to downplay innate brain differences between the sexes and to emphasize the role of socialization — the notion that from an early age, girls and boys are taught how to think and how to behave through social situations. According to socialization proponents, society teaches boys and girls very different lessons and presents them with different models for approaching problems, so much so that over time, the average male brain and the average female brain develop different preferences, concerns, and strategies.
That societal prejudices and pressures could be influencing the direction of our children’s brain development has caused no lack of consternation among the progressive parenting crowd (many of whom grew up listening to and believing in Free to Be… You and Me.) Some of these parents have taken up the battle cry and gone full frontal assault against the socialization tide, attempting to shape their daughters into sword wielding, aggressive go-getters and their sons into more emotionally-open nurturers.
Friends of ours in Connecticut, die-hard conservatives no less, tell the story of how they decided to purchase a toy truck and a toy tool set for their young daughter, in order to encourage her constructive play. Imagine their surprise when they found their daughter gleefully cradling the truck, cooing at it and calling it “baby”, while lovingly using the toy wrench as a “bottle” for feeding. I didn’t have the heart to ask them if she burped the truck and changed its diaper as well.
The case with boys is no less exasperating. Take for example the millions of “enlightened” parents who have attempted in vain to reign in their boys’ fascination with guns. Miami Herald humorist Dave Barry, who once enacted a failed toy-gun ban in his own home, suggested in one of his columns that two boys abandoned together on a desert island with only their wits to help them survive would immediately begin making toy guns out of driftwood. Along these same lines, we highly recommend this humorous and informative blog entry by Alice Bradley [http://www.alphamom.com/wonderland/2008/07/is_pretendshooting_acceptable.php] about 101 ways to “die” at the hands of your boy toddler.
The anecdotal evidence above, as well as a vast body of empirical evidence, suggests that boys and girls engage in very different modes of play — modes that address the needs of their very different social worlds.
It’s worth noting here that these stories call into sharp relief the use of the term “nurture”, in the Nature vs. Nurture debate. While the word “nurture” conjures images of a loving home environment that shapes our children’s behavioral development, these stories suggest something else entirely: that socialization through peer groups may be much stronger than our concerted efforts as parents to mold our children’s character. (This, in fact, is precisely the argument made by Judith Harris in The Nurture Assumption, her biting and controversial critique of the field of developmental psychology.)
Autism and Male Brain Theory While over the last 50 years socialization has been the generally preferred explanation for differences in boy-girl behavior, recent studies have suggested that biology may play a larger role than was previously acknowledged. These come from an unexpected source — studies on autism.
Enter Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology and Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. (No, he’s not the brother of Sacha Baron Cohen — the comedic evil genius behind the characters of Borat and Ali G. — he’s his first cousin.) One of the world’s most respected autism researchers, Baron-Cohen’s team was the first to publish research demonstrating that children with autism lack or have a greatly impaired theory of mind – i.e. they have particular difficulty in understanding that another person can have an individual perspective separate from their own. This in turn makes it very difficult for autistic children to read other people’s emotions and develop empathy towards them. Theory of mind impairment has since become widely accepted as one of the standard diagnostic features of autism.
How does this relate to Harry’s brain and Sally’s brain? We mentioned before the subtle structural differences between adult male and female brains, but your typical Harry and Sally will perform differently at certain mental tasks as well. For example, Harry will score higher on-average than Sally on map-reading tests and tests that ask him to visualize 3-dimensional objects being rotated. Sally will typically score higher than Harry on certain tests of language ability, and recognition of other people’s emotional states. Baron-Cohen has taken this and other evidence and condensed it into a very simple, reductionist and highly controversial formulation that he published in his 2003 book The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain. He claims that the typical male brain is more adept at systemization, while the typical female brain has an affinity for tasks that require empathy. (Does anyone feel the ghost of Larry Summers in the room?)
In fact, Baron-Cohen has set the scientific world on its ear with his latest theory that autism is nothing more than a person exhibiting an extreme “male type” brain. This is based on their recent finding that among the parents of autistic children, there is a strong tendency for both the father and mother to have more systemizing brains than empathizing ones. These parents score highly on systemizing tests and more poorly on empathy tests, indicative of strongly “male” cognitive bias. Roll the genetic dice and two such parents have a much higher chance of giving birth to a baby with an extreme male brain, displaying “a particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize.”
This, suggests Baron-Cohen cautiously, may be the real cause of autism: a preoccupation with one type of brain activity — one that constantly seeks to arrange stimuli into rationally ordered patterns — to the exclusion of another type of brain activity that involves language acquisition and understanding that other people have different perspectives. The ramification is that autism — as debilitating as it can be — is not really a brain “disorder” at all, but the logical manifestation of a person being at the extreme, far “male end” of the brain continuum.
(For an elucidating discussion of Baron-Cohen’s theories by several of the world’s leading scientists, we highly recommend this article in Edge.)
One other major discovery by this cutting-edge team of scientists. They have found evidence that the differences in male-female brain activity may exist as early as at childbirth. In a study of babies less than 24-hours old, Baron-Cohen and team found that when newborns are presented with a live human face alongside a mechanically moving mobile, the males spend significantly more time looking at the mechanical mobile than the females, who spend more time looking at the human face. This supports the hypothesis that baby boys are more attracted towards systemizing brain activity — in this case recording and analyzing mechanical motion — while baby girls are more attracted to empathy-related activities — searching for emotional expressions in the facial features of others.
While this much criticized study still awaits replication by an independent team of scientists and further elucidation, it certainly bursts open a new door of inquiry into whether boy brains and girl brains might start developing in different ways before socialization ever has a chance to kick in. Score one (tentative) point for Nature.
What’s a Parent to Do?
So where does this leave us parents, struggling to raise our kids the best way we know how? Is there a point to our trying to nurture our kids towards or away from society’s expectations, or ultimately are our kids fated to be whatever their genes have already decided?
Without being too preachy (or giving a definitive answer), we are firm believers that our children are innately blessed with a multitude of potential talents. From the very outset, their brains are wired to learn, learn, and then learn some more – and this is just as typical for girls as it is for boys. Both our girls and boys are blessed with a wonderful curiosity that drives them to constantly explore and try to make sense out of their growing universes. That they tend to do so in different ways shouldn’t trouble us or surprise us too much.
And while X and Y chromosomes may (or may not) predispose our children’s brains towards fairies or super heroes, tea parties or swashbuckling adventures, the desire to learn new things constantly exists. It is our job as parents and teachers to help unlock and feed that curiosity in as many different directions as possible: the sciences and music; poetry and math; sports and crafts; comedy and drama. The possibilities are as limitless as our children’s minds are broad.
We encourage parents of young children, especially during the early grade school years, to vary their children’s extracurricular activities. Give them as many opportunities as possible to explore some of their own potential talents and try to avoid locking them into any specific one at this early stage. And it is precisely here that it is important for parents not to be afraid to cross the gender divide. Interspersed with computers and football, you can encourage your boys to try out gymnastics or movement — just call it something cool like capoeira. And for the girls, between the ballet classes and soccer practice encourage them to have their scones and tea over a stimulating game of chess or, if they prefer, the board game Risk. World domination is just a few rolls of the dice away.
It’s not so much about defying society’s expectations, but about giving our children the opportunity to learn as much as they can about themselves, to learn what sorts of activities they truly love doing. It’s about tapping into their natural enthusiasm. It’s about showing our kids that we believe in them whatever they choose, and teaching them that they should believe in themselves, too. For when our kids believe in themselves and love what they’re doing, there’s no limit to what they can achieve.
And whatever they eventually do choose, it’s far more significant than that pink or blue jumpsuit, or the airplane mobile that once hung over their crib.
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