Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Men aren't from Mars/Women aren't from Venus.

Men aren't from Mars and women aren't from Venus. Both men and women are from Earth and we'd probably do well to try and remember that and just get on with it.

I was back at London Skeptics in the Pub for Professor Sophie Scott's impressively well attended Sex on the Brain talk in which she was attempting to puncture some of the inflated, and daft, ideas and theories about men's and women's brains somehow working in different ways. Theories that have been reinforced recently by books like John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" that suggest that women multi-task while men can only think of one thing at any one time - and that thing is usually hunting.

The Prof is a great speaker so any fear that the subject may be a little dry was dispelled very early on. She's a research scientist who investigates human communication and the human brain with a particular emphasis on the neurobiological basis of vocal communication and how this can go wrong, she's pioneered the study of the neuroscience of laughter, but, some evenings, she turns theory into practice as a stand up comic.

So she'll have faced tougher crowds and felt pretty comfy in front of a selection of regular Skeptics and curious onlookers. She kicked off with a few stats (in the form of questions to the audience):- men talk more than women, women play video games more than men, women tend to underestimate their intelligence, men tend to overestimate their intelligence (except in Japan, apparently - Nigeria and the USA were the two countries where men's idea of their own intelligence had been judged to be the most exaggerated from the reality of it, make of that what you will), and women are more aroused by erotic stimuli than men.

Some of these were obvious, some mildly surprising - and it was all good fun and interesting - but they weren't necessarily particularly pertinent to the points that Professor Scott was making. Scott is quoted as saying that her "experience of science is that your threshold for accepting data can be really low if you say you’re looking at sex differences. Gender is the outcome of the way that we treat human beings from the minute they're born and people are interested in knowing if they're boys or girls. We then start constructing a world round them.” That's right folks, she's saying, in the case of gender differences it's nurture, not nature, all the way.

I'm inclined to believe her. Despite some slightly confusing graphs (I really don't know who Xiomg is or how reliable their 1998 study is, and nor do I have any knowledge of 2009's Kerift al work) Scott kept the talk whizzing along, with plenty of laughter, and lots of interesting, and insightful facts. If men have proved, in studies, to be ever so slightly better at spatial awareness tasks and women have the upper hand, marginally, in language related skills then that's only a small part of the story.

These beliefs tell us why the myth persists that men can do three point turns better than women and women can multi-task, but they paint a very partial picture. In the very extreme top end of both of these cognitive pursuits there is a tiny amount of men (spatial) and women (language) who are highly advanced. Elsewhere everyone's pretty much in it together. Men do have bigger brains (even allowing for the scaling up of women's comparatively smaller bodies) but women have more grey matter in their brains which, according to some science I don't understand (there are 86,000,000,000 neurons in our human brains but I've not been able to make the correct connections between them to understand how they work) means we're all pretty much equal when it comes to brain power.

Our gender is defined by in utero exposure to hormones and one prevailing theory, the brain sex theory (which sounds more fun than it is), insists that the same thing happens to our brain. We develop a way of thinking that's either male or female while we're still in the womb and we're stuck with this, like it or not, for the rest of our life.

But, obviously, our brain isn't fully formed when we're born. It develops as we live. Mammals have evolved into having extended periods of juvenile existence expressly so that our brains can be trained for the tasks ahead. It's part of our success, and our brains keep growing throughout our lives as long as we use them. If you learn another language, or how to play a musical instrument, this will enhance your brain massively. Also, it's vital for the brain that it's challenged. Two very important things are to use it both intellectually (languages, musical instruments, etc;) but also socially. If getting out there and talking to people doesn't already seem a worthwhile pursuit then do it for yourself, do it for your brain.

I've often thought that too much time in isolation, surrounded by your own thoughts, isn't necessarily a good thing. You develop ideas and behaviours and those ideas and behaviours need to be challenged to see how rigorous they are. In the very first blog I wrote I pretended I knew something about dialectics. I've only got a slightly more advanced take on what that precisely means now but what I learnt last night, at the Skeptics meeting, was not only is the dialectical method good for logic and reasoning in groups but also useful for our own individual brains to develop. Socrates and Plato were on to something. It might be why, nearly 2,500 years later, we still know their names.

So our gender can have a very small, pretty much negligible, affect on the way, and how, we think - but other factors are much greater. The language you grow up speaking will affect the way you see colours and navigation skills can be hugely enhanced depending on where you grow up. In one particularly illuminating example the Professor described how Westerners tend to look at people's eyes when they're being spoken to but Chinese people look at the mouth that the words are coming out of.

The biggest variations of all, it should come as no surprise, aren't between men and women, but those within individuals groups of men and women. You may observe, as an attendee did, that most chess grand masters are, and always have been, men and from this you may deduce that men have the required skills for this discipline in ways that women don't.  But very few men are chess grand masters. I can, much to my despair, barely play the game. Why should such extreme examples be considered adequate tests for the rest of us?

Societal norms play a factor as well. When computer engineering, or computation in general, was first introduced into universities the numbers of people studying it were, factoring in attendance numbers, roughly equal between men and women. If anything there were more women studying it. Computing was seen, initially, as a menial task, 'women's work'. But once that changed and computers stopped being dusty things with reel to reel tapes stored in a basement and were introduced to the home the marketing started to be directed at boys. I had a ZX81 and later a Commodore 64 and most of my male friends did too. The few females I had the nerve to speak to in my teenage years were either not in to computers or had been surreptitiously pushed away from them. Soon computer engineering became men's work and the amount of women signing up to, or being accepted on, courses dropped drastically.

Two more potentially stark examples of men's and women's brains either working, or being programmed by society, in different ways come in the fields of sexual preference and incarceration. Let's leave the nice one until last and take the unpleasant one first. The current UK prison population consists of 82,000+ men and 3,000+ women. There are twenty one times as many men in prison in the UK as there are women (and this pattern is repeated, more or less, globally). That paints a picture way more vivid than a woman struggling to reverse park, a man unable to do two things at once, or Magnus Carlsen destroying Levon Aronian in a particularly impressive chess middlegame.

Professor Scott felt that more study should go in to why men are more criminally minded than women and whilst not disagreeing with her I'd also counter that the huge imbalance in the prison population is also, in part, due to societal factors. Despite great advances it's still expected that, in most cases, men provide for women (I'm aware this is all very heteronormative and the Professor acknowledged that too, but the bulk of relationships are still heterosexual and we're painting with a broad brush here) and that, to me, goes some way to suggesting why men are more likely to resort to crime. Either that or we're just a bunch of horrible violent bastards. When you look around the world at people in positions of power it's hard to completely discredit that hypothesis.

But, hey, enough of prison and more about sex - and not prison sex either. This was one of the most amusing parts of the talk and if it's hard to accept that studies on the sex lives of sheep can in any way reflect on the sex lives of humans or, indeed, gender imbalances in the brain then the findings are just too good to leave out.

Apparently 10% of all male sheep are gay (there's been no research into lesbian sheep because there's no money in it). These aren't just the ones who have sex with other male sheep because they're cooped up and frustrated (I know I said no prison sex, but I'm a man and I'm predisposed to lying) but ones who have an active sexual preference for other male sheep. Which can, so we're told, be identified by three factors:- anogenital sniffing (you've seen dogs do it, apparently the sexy smells don't last long so you gotta get them when they're fresh), forelag pawing (again, you've seen dogs do it), and the flehmen response. You know when a horse lifts its upper lip up to reveal its gums and upper teeth, that's the flehmen response. It's done to facilitate the transfer of pheromones, sex ones in the case of gay sheep. Rhinos really cut to the chase on this and just piss in each other's faces to get things going. Now that's what you call foreplay.

Surveys have found another 20% of male sheep are bisexual, and about 15%-20% are completely asexual and have no interest at all. Which means that only half of male sheep, roughly, are traditionally straight. I'm really not sure what this tells us about gendering, or otherwise, of our brains but it's just one of the fascinating diversions these Skeptics nights can sometimes take.

I also found out that only three animals exist that go through the menopause. Humans, short finned pilot whales, and killer whales. All other animals (including our nearest ancestors, the apes, and all other whales) can continue giving birth right up until they die. Professor Scott ended her talk on a suitably, and rightfully, feminist note by suggesting the reason there had been no serious study into the female menopause and the affect it has on a woman's brain is quite simply that once a woman can no longer produce children society has no interest in her. Controversial - sure. Contentious - definitely. Correct - possibly. Either way a fascinating talk that no doubt was continuing long into the night as I went off to hunt for food. I found some Quorn sausages in my local Sainsbury's and then I ate them whilst watching University Challenge. If that's not multi-tasking I don't know what is.

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