This is our truth, tell us yours
So we are informed today that men and womans brains are different, that traditional beliefs about map reading and sandwich making are true and I can stop worrying my pretty little head and get back in the kitchen. What a relief, every misogynist must be sitting back with a smug, satisfied smile at the “proof” they were right all along.
Except, to paraphrase Karl Popper, proof is what scientists go looking for once they have decided what their theory is. The reports today mean nothing in a vacuum, so lets look at some of the other investigations scientists have made in brains and their structure. One of the most fascinating, well to me at least, was the discovery of the fact brains of psychopaths differ in substantial ways from the general population. The link between ill treatment of others and the inability to have empathy for them seems clear, and this research shows how that might exist. What is the relevance here though?
Well other research has shown many people clinically diagnosed as psychopaths had been abused in infancy, either physically or emotionally. The failure of the frontal lobes to develop has by many been linked to a failure in nurturing in the very earliest moments of a person’s life. It is fashionable now to dismiss Freud, largely I think because not enough nursery school teachers are writing about infants and toddlers. Anyone who has ever spent a lot of time around them will tell you that babies are not just bundles of puking and pooing but responding constantly to their care givers.Anyone who has ever watched Ainsworths and Bowlby’s experiments has seen the horror with which the babies contemplate being ignored by their primary care giver. The removal of their love, even for a few moments first makes the baby attempt to get that attention back, then it withdraws within itself. It is a microcosm of what happens to abused children and makes very hard watching even when you know the mothers love has not been withdrawn. The film of Laura shows how even non neglectful treatment can impact on the behaviour of a small child. Laura was well treated by the standards of the day, but we can see her withdrawal and loss of trust even in two weeks. The brains of the young are constantly changing, growing and being formed.
So we know that babies absorb messages about themselves and the world from the moment they are born. Messages that affect how their brains develop and how they interact with the world. Knowing this how might we look st the research hitting the headlines today? Another group of experiments gives us a clue. Researchers dressed a baby in either blue or pink, and observed how people, who had not been told the gender of the baby interacted with it. Even a new born was treated differently according to the gender it was believed to be. Boys were praised for strength and kicking or making noises, girls were told to quiet, not be trouble and praised for their looks. All of which makes the findings that men are better at physical and women at social/emotional acts as useful a finding as a study into whether the Pope believes in transubstantiation.
Nature versus nurture is a debate that uses up so much time and energy. There are dark corners that need to be uncovered, such as the fact that in France autism is still treated as a result of a Mothers failure to bond, but it is not a debate that helps anyone except misogynists and transphobes. We live in a world where gender norms are imposed from birth and babies brains are formed by their experiences, all that todays research tells us is that, nothing more. To use it to suggest there is an innate difference between men and women is to ignore the reality, in our society we treat people differently from the moment of birth, and any difference may do no more than reflect that.