Friday, October 06, 2006

'The Female Brain'

I am a big fan of brainy females. As evidence I offer my dear wife Lee, the smartest gal I know, and Louise Riofrio (A Babe in the Universe - above) clearly a female and a brainy one at that. All my Zone Bridge partners are smart women.

I believe that women have the same general intelligence as men, as is evident on standardized tests. Male and female IQ distributions peak at the same value, but there is some evidence that the male distribution is wider, with more men than women at the very lowest end (largely men who still think Castro is cool) and at the highest end (largely neocons and physicists). On the average, males and females are just as smart, only different. Feminists have long denied the differences, but all normal people appreciate them.

Now these differences have been quantified and analyzed in a new book The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine. Many of the scientific findings validate differences we all instinctively know are true. For example, women talk more and read more than men, resulting in larger female vocabularies. The typical woman uses about 20,000 words a day while a man uses about 7,000. Men mostly look at pictures (see above) and grunt a lot.

In the chapter on the birth of the female brain, Brizendine observes:

“Common sense tells us that boys and girls behave differently. We see it every day at home, on the playground, and in classrooms. But what the culture hasn't told us is that the brain dictates these divergent behaviors. The impulses of children are so innate that they kick in even if we adults try to nudge them in another direction.”

Last year, Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard University, told an academic conference that his young daughter, when given two trucks in another effort of gender-neutral parenting, treated them like dolls, calling one "daddy truck" and the other "baby truck". Parents of both boys and girls, or at least 97.4% of us, will nod our heads in recognition of this obvious difference. (More on the remaining 2.6% later)

Brizendine’s description of the evolution of brains in utero is fascinating.

“Imagine for a moment that you are in a microcapsule speeding up the vaginal canal, hitting warp drive through the cervix ahead of the tsunami of sperm. Once inside the uterus, you'll see a giant, undulating egg waiting for that lucky tadpole with enough moxie to penetrate the surface. Let's say the sperm that led the charge carries an X and not a Y chromosome. Voilà, the fertilized egg is a girl.

“Until eight weeks old, every fetal brain looks female - female is nature's default gender setting. If you were to watch a female and a male brain developing via time-lapse photography, you would see their circuit diagrams being laid down according to the blueprint drafted by both genes and sex hormones.

A huge testosterone surge beginning in the eighth week will turn this unisex brain male by killing off some cells in the communication centers and growing more cells in the sex and aggression centers. If the testosterone surge doesn't happen, the female brain continues to grow unperturbed. Girls do not experience the testosterone surge in utero that shrinks the centers for communication, observation, and processing of emotion.”

Males and females have different brain structures. The female’s communication center and emotional memory center are bigger than the male’s. Boys generally use language to command others, get things done, brag, threaten, ignore a partner's suggestion, and override each other's attempts to speak. The testosterone-soaked boy brain simply doesn't look for social connection in the same way a girl brain does.

Males have much larger sections of the brain for action and aggression and more than 2.5 times the amount of brain space devoted to sexual drive, meaning they think about sex, on average, every 52 seconds. Drug companies make $2.5 billion a year selling sexual dysfunction drugs to men, while more women suffer from it than men. Yet the drug industry has failed women miserably, Pfizer conceding that its famous blue pill only works for men. "I hate to say it, but women are much more complex than men," said Beverly Whipple, the sex researcher who wrote The G-Spot.

Returning to the Larry Summers incident, Nancy Hopkins a biologist from MIT, walked out of the meeting, later saying leaving was the only option, otherwise "I would've either blacked out or thrown up". In an interview later she said: "It's so upsetting that all these brilliant young women are being led by a man who views them this way." Summers' real crime was when he hypothesised that genetics, more than environment, might explain the dearth of women in science and engineering, especially at the highest levels.

Now Elizabeth S. Spelke of Harvard has written “Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science? A Critical Review.” Spelke considers three claims that cognitive sex differences account for the higher numbers of men than women in high-level careers in mathematics and science: (a) males are more focused on objects from childhood and are therefore better at learning about mechanical systems; (b) males have higher spatial and numerical abilities producing greater aptitude for mathematics; and (c) males are more variable in their cognitive abilities and therefore predominate at the highest levels of mathematical talent (and the lowest). Spelke claims that research on cognitive development in human infants, preschool children, and students fail to support these claims.

You’d have to hold a graduate degree to believe this.

But there are many brainy women in science. Louise (above) is in cosmology and she developed a formula predicting that the speed of light is time dependent (slowing down). Jackie Floyd is a geophysicist at Exxon-Mobil who blogs at Element. I play bridge with Judy her mom. Mahndisa Rigmaiden is finishing her physics degree, has an interest in strings and quantum gravity and blogs at Mhandisa’s Thoughts. Christine Dantas (Brazil) is an astrophysicist with an interest in quantum gravity who blogs at Christine’s Background Independence. Risa Weschler is a Hubble Fellow at U. Chicago and JoAnn Hewett is an Assoc. Prof. at Stanford (SLAC) -- both blog at Cosmic Variance. These are some smart cookies.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,
I enjoy reading your blogs. Although my children were born in the seventies and the wisdom of the day said boys and girls were identical if raised the same, I never believed it.

I also kept drinking coffee even when the experts kept telling us not to and look at Starbucks today.


11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill, I thank you for this one in particular and for the vast array of subjects you cover in general.

I think that no one knowledgeable doubts that the IQ Bell Curve is wider for males, and that should produce more dummy males and more brilliant males---all other factors set aside. There is no doubt that the height of the IQ curves at say IQ130 and IQ160 favors males.

There is also no doubt that our society, partially molded by genetics, helps males utilize math-science positive traits more than females. For all these reasons, one should not be surprised that many more males than females are in math and science.

However, our country has just this week (or maybe next week) reached 300 million. That leaves something greater than 150 million females that are possible candidates for math and science vocations. Plenty of candidates, for sure, and it's clear that our society is tending to overcome our hunter-gatherer legacies and that females will soon significantly outweigh males in college admittance

By the way, though he is very lonely out there--he has only a few brave fellows who agree-- the (in)famous psychometrician Richard Lynn (2nd most cited in "The Bell Curve") insists that males have a three-five point IQ advantage over females, masked and erroneously corrected by test-publishers' skewing the tests to show equal numbers for the sexes.


11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I also kept drinking coffee even when the experts kept telling us not to and look at Starbucks today." Uh, what?

2:35 PM  
Blogger Kea said...


Obviously women are different to men. The biology is fascinating. However, I find your simplistic analysis of those differences disheartening. The point of the Summers issue is that studies have conclusively shown that discrimination against women in the sciences is by far the overriding factor, which needs to be dealt with. In fact, some of the discrimination comes down to precisely the sort of differences that you mention.

4:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and I do agree that biology does play a large part in differences between the sexes.

And viva la difference!

But as you also point out, women can thrive in math/science, because they can still do well when they are given the opportunity to strenghen their less strong areas (just as men can become great communicators when given the opportunity to strengthen their less strong areas).

As I see it, keeping women from opportunity in math/science (which was truly the norm when I was in grade school) is as bad as not helping boys to make social connections and only training their "aggressive" side.

In other words, the answer is in broadly educating both men and women in areas that may not be their genetic strength.

That's when we will all get along better, I think.

Take care,

9:30 PM  
Blogger Mattress said...

I'm no physicist but shouldn't it be obvious that the speed of light (or the speed of anything, for that matter) is time dependant since speed is distance over time?

Or am I missing something here?

1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I feel soooo left out. I read the list of brainy females you knew - and my name was conspicuously absent from your list! I'll have to work harder...


2:24 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

The sociological bias that you mention is largely gone, in my opinion. When I was teaching in college(70s-80s) the faculty made concerted efforts to encourage women and to help them enter engineering and science fields. We were always looking for qualified women to fill faculty positions; all-male departments were boring. When I moved into corporate management (80s-90s) the culture was focussed on attracting women and minorities. Managers were graded on how well we did. I recruited women from China because the competition for the American women (and blacks) was so fierce.

The issue about the highest levels of accomplishment (Harvard science faculty, Nobel prizes in physics, etc) is simply one of numbers. As more women go into these fields there will be more who attain those positions, but at a cost to their family lives. I'm afraid that the single minded obsession required to attain a Nobel prize is inconsistent with raising children. It's a tradeoff some women will make (and some men... not including moi).

What you say about strengthening less strong areas of the brain is very true. I have a friend with a seven year old son who is hyperactive. Rather than drugs, the doctors did a brain scan and found that portions of his brain that are related to his activity were not functioning as they should. So they are having him do computer exercises in the form of games that strengthen the weak portions, and once the brain is remapped it will remain that way. The mom has seen remarkable results in just a few months.

Girls with the desire can absolutely strengthen the spatial and analytical brain functions, and of course there are many women in the Bell distribution who are already stronger than men in those areas. (Studies show a correlation with testosterone levels.) With this understanding there has been a strong movement to get girls to study science and engineering and it is paying off in some fields (medicine, biology and psychology).

The speed of light is thought to be a constant (3x10^8 m/sec). You refer to the definition of speed which is distance/time, but when you are driving 60mph your speed is constant.

Thank you all for your comments.

2:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a grandkid at Harvard (a post-grad in physics) and followed the Larry Summers brouhaha carefully. The mistake I see science and math in general committing is failing to acknowledge motherhood as the model of numerical reality which forms our individual databases of actual reality. Mothers try to pass on their profound knowledge to children, but I see no sign whatsoever that children listen or if they do, are able to heed.

Brain inequality between mothers and children is obvious to all. If mothers -- femaleness par excellent -- didn't understand more about the numerical complexities of gender-differentiated existence than their newborns, no self consciousness would ever be possible. So far as anyone can tell, males never bear children, the hallmark of femaleness. It seems rather that men, as eternal children, joyfully return themselves to the female system for further processing.

Best wishes to you,


4:22 PM  
Blogger Kea said...

The sociological bias that you mention is largely gone, in my opinion.

Twenty years ago I probably would have agreed with you. Now I know much better.

4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too bad it's all bullshit. The book is full of footnotes that reference studies that don't back up the claims made in the book. No science to see here. Move along.

9:44 AM  

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