Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Female Brain Lady

In a prior blog, I likened the hypotheses of the Female Brain Lady, Louann Brizendine, about asymmetries in the structures of male and female brains to those of Deborah Tannen in
regard to asymmetries in male and female ways of interacting verbally. It became immediately clear that her anatomical claims of differences in male and female brains are not subject to the same criticism as Tannen's, for the latter's claims have a purely sociological basis and are subject to the criticism that many differences in verbal behavior between males and females have more to do with power and status than gender. It is because of this that one can much more reasonably claim that differences in male and female verbal behavior lie along a continuum rather than being somehow bipolar in nature.

The problem with the Brain Lady's discussions in her book, The Female Brain, derive from two things, the first being that when she attributes behavioral differences between males and females to brain dimorphism, her work, in the words of abagail in a comment on my earlier blog, is "so freakin reductionist it makes me cringe." The second problem is that some of the behavioral differences between males and females she attributes to differences in brain structure are most likely false to begin with.

One of the claims the Brain Lady made -- don't ask me to remember or even understand the hormonal process that causes this -- is that the speech centers of women are larger than those of men. There is support for this claim in the literature. In the Archives of Neurology, for instance there is reference to an article titled "Language-associated cortical regions are proportionally larger in the female brain." This study was predicated on an effort to find anatomical support for the claim that there is "significant sexual dimorphism in verbal ability." What this study of brains fixed in formaldehyde found was that "females have proportionally larger Wernicke and Broca language-associated regions compared with males." This anatomical claim is also supported by other research. The Wernicke and Broca areas have long been known, of course, to be associated with language.

I have turned the Brain Lady's book back into the library and cannot recheck the facts but she does make the following claims:
1. Men's brains are larger than those of females.
2. The neural capacity and complexity of female brains is equal to that of male brains.
We conclude from this that size makes no difference. Yet, the Brain Lady (I don't mean this phrase as a sign of disrespect) claims that differences between males and females in verbal capacity is due to the proportionally larger sizes of the language areas of the brain in females. So, in this case, size does make a difference? The article just cited suggests the same, but employs the weasel word "could" by way of weakening the claim. Perhaps the Brain Lady asserted a weaker version of the claim than I attributed to her. I just don't recall but I don't think she did.

However, we have a bit of a puzzle here. If the different brain sizes of typical males and females does not itself have any cognitive consequences, why should the different sizes of the Wernike and Broca areas of typical men and women have any linguistic consequences? This possibility is not discussed by the Brain Lady. In fact, the premise that females have greater verbal ability than males is anything but established as an indisputable or significant fact. In a 1992 study by Alan Feingold of Yale, it is claimed that the differences are that females score better on grammar and spelling and perceptual speed tests but there are no substantive differences between the genders in regard to general verbal ability or in regard to other cognitive abilities. Moreover he claims that the historical trend is toward fewer differences.

In even earlier research (1989), Marcia C. Lynn and Janet S. Hyde argue in their paper "Gender, Mathematics, and Science," claim that administers of the SAT take the view that there are no substantive differences between males and females in verbal ability. In questions that have to do with aesthetic matters, females perform better thn males, but in questions involving science and practical matters, males do better. So, the Brain Lady's work is not only mindlessly reductionist, the differences in verbal ability of males and females she attributes to brain differences are so negligible as not to require explanation of any kind. Let me end this discussion with the unintentionally comedic view of Diane F. Halpern and Mary L. LaMay that any differences that exist can be explained best by a "psychobiosocial model." That, of course, covers all of the bases.

The Brain Lady also claim
3. Women use more words than men.
I am not sure where she gets this claim from but the sociolinguistic literature, such as the work of Tannen and others, supports the thesis that in mixed gender conversations, males tend to dominate. So, the facts go against the Brain Lady insofar as mixed gender conversations are concerned. But, if women use more words than men in same gender conversations, who cares?

One of the ways that one might try to show that females have greater verbal ability than males would be that they have larger vocabularies. I ask all of you to design some experiment that might show this. One thing we can be sure won't work would be to have males and females simply list all the words they know. How else might one show this? We might come up with texts for males and females to read and ask them to mark all words that they don't know. One problem with this would be that people would probably lie. Who wants to admit they don't know what "phenomenology" means? Another problem would involve selection of texts. Would we choose articles from fashion magazines or articles from Popular Science or some auto magazine?

Perhaps the nadir of the Brain Lady's reductionist thinking is her suggesting that some male violence against females may be due to the fact that males get frustrated by the greater verbal dexterity of women when they engage in verbal fights. I can think of a few other reasons for this. Males tend to be more violent than women in most contexts, both physically and verbally so why would we be surprised that they are more violent toward women than women are toward men. Men are more likely in my opinion, to come home drunk than are females. The results can be ugly. I go for a psychobiosocial account of this. That way I can't be wrong. Of course, the Brain Lady regularly suggests that there are social influences on all behavior but doesn't attempt to show how that might be true.

The silliest claim that the Brain Lady makes is that men think about sex every 57 seconds while females think about it only a couple of times a day. It is, of course, literally false as a claim about the frequency with which males think about sex. I am sure that in the time I was writing about verbal ability in the above sentences I didn't once think about sex. So the only way I can think of for it to be true is that males average out as thinking about sex every 57 seconds. That, I can believe. All it would take is for a male to read Playboy magazine for 16.8 minutes each day for him to average out as thinking about sex every 57 seconds. As an average, her claim isn't particularly remarkable.

Possibly the Brain Lady has some scholarly reference to bolster her various claims but she uses no end-note numbers to signal what claims are attributable to other writers. Only after finishing the book did I discovered that the book had end-notes but these are linked to specific phrases occurring in the text on specific pages. I suspect this was done to make the text less intimidating to the average reader. End-notes and footnotes scare people off for they signal that they have picked up a dry, scholarly text. I would like suggestions as to how in hell one can efficiently keep track of the references in a book structured like this. Is the idea that one should look at the phrases for each page reference in the end-note section before reading that page and hope that one remembers the phrases well enough to recognize them when one sees them? Fat chance.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I have no disagreement with you here as far as I can see it, but I would like to point out a matter of interest: you appear to have used the word "gender" when you meant "sex".

12:21 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I am myself a feminist but one thing I regret is letting feminsts influence me in my use of language. I am in a state of terminal confusion as to when to use "sex" and when to use "gender." So, I suspect I use them in a semirandom fashion. Some of my confusion continues because I think that this distinction is political and so don't worry about it much.

3:34 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Odd...but I didn't think about sex (except as "gender") once while reading until you mentioned it. (Now I can't think about anything else. Ooor!)

I stopped paying attention to "Every X minutes/seconds/etc Y happens" claims when as a kid I heard the joke "There's a woman has a baby every 20 seconds. When the authorities find her, they're gonna make her stop!"

IF verbal ability is more important in female social interactions, wouldn't that also have an impact on the development of verbal centers in the brain, apart from hormonal differences?

9:32 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

to the Brain Lady's suggestion that " some male violence against females may be due to the fact that males get frustrated by the greater verbal dexterity of women"

I think we could change this around a bit to make it at least plausible: female and male humans have evolved to defend themselves and to manipulate one another. Males got the biceps, and females a more powerful verbal center.

On the other hand, perhaps women have the ability to manipulate men through their good looks. Throughout the animal kingdom, it is almost always the male who is more “beautiful” and who is thus the object of sexual selection. The famous example is the peacock’s tail. It seems that for humans, it's the other way around; the female is more “beautiful.”

5:28 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks for the comments. It seems that you guys recognized the comedic element of all this.

I recall hearing about reductionism when I was in college back in the late 50's or early 60's and didn't see it immediately as the problem it continues to be. The reality is that a psychobiosocial model, though I made fun of it, is the only one that stands a chance of being true as a theory as to how Brain morphology and function is involved in behavior.

IbaDaiRon will recall cases, however, of early loss of the language areas of the left side due to disease or injury being compensated for by the right hemisphere. The brain is elastic to some degree though clearly certain areas of the brain do seem to be ability-specific. Even as I say that I think of the failure of phrenology.

7:30 AM


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