Category Archives: Research

Boy Brains, Girl Brains, and Neurosexism

Black White Bikes

Sorry to say, I’ve been irritable the past couple days. If you don’t believe me, just ask my internet provider . . . or my editor . . . or ask me about my upcoming book deadline. There’s evidence everywhere for my irritability and impatience. You might even see evidence for it in this short excerpt from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook. In fact, you should read this now, because I’m pretty sure it will get censored before appearing in our text.

Here you go.

You may be aware of popular books describing and delighting in the differences between female and male brains. Here’s a short list, along with my snarky comments:

  1. The essential difference: Male and female brains and the truth about autism (Baron-Cohen, 2003). Baron-Cohen is an autism researcher. His book allegedly, “. . . proves that female-type brains are better at empathizing and communicating, while male brains are stronger at understanding and building systems-not just computers and machinery, but abstract systems such as politics and music.” Comment: It’s so good to finally understand why most of our politicians are smirky White males who look like Baron-Cohen (heads up, this statement is sarcasm).
  2. The female brain (Brizendine, 2006): Brizendine is a neuropsychiatrist. Her book is touted as bringing “. . . together the latest findings to show how the unique structure of the female brain determines how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they love.” Comment: In Delusions of gender (2011), Cordelia Fine reduces Brizendine’s arguments to rubble. Nuff said.
  3. Teaching the female brain: How girls learn math and science (James, 2009). Comment: It’s hard to know how this book could be more than two pages given that there’s extremely sparse scientific evidence to support what this book’s title implies.
  4. Female brain gone insane: An emergency guide for women who feel like they are falling apart (Lundin, 2009). No comment. I couldn’t bring myself to read beyond this book’s title.
  5. The male brain: A breakthrough understanding of how men and boys think (Brizendine, 2011). Comment: The main breakthrough finding is that when you sell a million+ copies of your first book, a sequel, with similar drama, but equally slim scientific support, is essential.
  6. Unleash the power of the female brain: Supercharging yours for better health, energy, mood, focus, and sex (Amen, 2014). Comment: Better health, energy, mood, focus, and sex? I want a female brain!

The dangers of over-stating what’s known about the brain is significant, but nowhere are the dangers bigger than when you’re talking about sex and gender. Over time, physical differences between females and males have nearly always been used to justify systemic mistreatment of females (and limitations for males, as well). Some examples:

Plato didn’t think women were created directly by God and so they didn’t have had souls.

Aristotle thought women were deficient in natural heat and therefore unable to cook their menstrual fluids into semen.

Gustav Le Bon (1979) concluded that women’s intellectual inferiority was so obvious that no one could contest it. He wrote: “All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognize today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man” (see Women’s Brains by S. J. Gould). Le Bon purportedly based his ideas on Broca’s measurements of 6 female and 7 male skulls. Not surprisingly, Le Bon strongly opposed the whole idea of educating women.

More recently, over the past 30 years, I’ve seen and heard and read many different descriptions and explanations about female and male brain differences. Nearly always, there’s the same old story: Women are more “right brained” and intuitive and less “left brained” and rational. Of course the actual brain hemisphere research is sketchy, but the take home messages are much like Baron-Cohen’s and Brizendine, which happen to be much like the philosophy of the Nazi Third Reich, which is that girls and women are well-suited for working in the kitchen and the church, and especially good at caring for children, but that women had best leave politics and the corporate world – where steady rationality is essential – to the men.

All this reminds me of the time my daughter, then a senior in high school, was shown a film in her science class depicting the female brain as structurally less capable of science and math. She came home in distress. We showed up at school the next day. What do you suppose happened next? We’ll leave that story to your imagination.

Genderizing the brain marginalizes and limits females, but it can also do the same for males. Take, for example, this quotation from “Dr.” Kevin Leman.

“Did you know that scientific studies prove why a woman tends to be more ‘relational’ than her male counterpart? A woman actually has more connecting fibers than a man does between the verbal and the emotional side of her brain. That means a woman’s feelings and thoughts zip along quickly, like they’re on an expressway, but a man’s tend to poke slowly as if he’s walking and dragging his feet on a dirt road.” (pp. 5-6).

Just FYI, even though my emotional quotient is just barely dragging along Leman’s dirt road, I can quickly intuit that what he wrote is sheer drivel. It’s not partial drivel because . . . as Cordelia Fine might say, “He just made that shit up.”

Seriously? Am I making the claim that male and female brains are relatively equivalent in terms of empathic processing? Yes. I. am.

Using the best and most rigorous laboratory empathy measure available, empathy researcher William Ickes found no differences between males and females in seven consecutive studies. However, based on a larger group of studies, he and his colleagues acknowledged that there may be small sex-based differences favoring women on empathy tasks. It should be noted that he and his research team (which includes females who may be more limited in their scientific skills than Baron-Cohen) offer at least two caveats. First, they believe that females being raised in social conditions that promote a communal orientation may account for some of the differences. Second, females are especially likely to be better at empathy when they’re primed, directly or indirectly, to recall that they (women) are better at emotional tasks than men. The converse is also true. When men are primed to think all men are empathic dullards, they tend to perform more like empathic dullards.

What all this boils down to is that females and males are generally quite similar in their empathic accuracy, not to mention their math and science and language abilities. It appears that the minor observable differences between females and males may be explained by various environmental factors. This means that if you want to stick with scientific evidence, you should be very cautious in making any conclusions about brain differences between females and males. To do otherwise is to create what has been eloquently termed, a neuromyth.

In summary, the safest empirically-based conclusions on sex- and gender-based brain differences are:

  1. The differences appear to be minimal
  2. When they exist, they may be largely caused by immediate environmental factors or longer-term educational opportunities
  3. To avoid mistakes from the past, we should be cautious in attributing female and male behavioral or performance differences to their brains
  4. If and when true neurological differences are discovered, it would be best if we viewed them using the Jungian concept of Gifts differing (Myers, 1995).
  5. Consistent with Cordelia Fine’s excellent recommendation in Delusions of Gender, we shouldn’t make things up—even if it means we get to sell more books.
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Feminist Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology: A Natural Connection

 

Woman Statue

This is a draft “Brain Box” for the feminist theory and therapy chapter from our forthcoming Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy textbook.

**************

Feminist therapy is about connection.

So is neuroscience.

Neuroscience involves the study of synaptic interconnections, neural networks, brain structures and their electrochemical communications.

Feminist therapy involves egalitarian interconnection, empathy, mutual empathy, and empowerment of the oppressed, neglected, and marginalized.

As a highly sophisticated, interconnected entity, the human brain is metaphorical support for feminist theory and therapy. In the brain, cells don’t operate in isolation. In feminist therapy in general, and relational cultural therapy (RCT) in particular, isolation is unhealthy. Connection is healthy.

Healthy brains are connection-heavy. Whether humans are awake or asleep, brain cells are in constant communication; they problem-solve; they operate sensory and motor systems; they feedback information to and from the body, inhibiting, exciting, and forming a connected, communicating, community.

Using modern brain research as a foundation, Jordan (the developer of RCT) described how empathic relationships can change clients:

“Empathy is not just a means to better understand the client; in mutually empathic exchanges, the isolation of the client is altered. The client feels less alone, more joined with the therapist. It is likely that in these moments of empathy and resonance, there is active brain resonance between therapist and client (Schore, 1994), which can alter the landscape and functioning of the brain. Thus, those areas of the brain that register isolation and exclusion fire less and those areas that indicate empathic responsiveness begin to activate.”

Jordan is talking about how therapist-client interactions change the brain. Many others have made the same point: “It is the power of being with others that shapes our brain” (Cozolino, 2006, p. 9). In her review of RCT theory and outcomes, Frey (2013) emphasized that “research on mirror neurons, the facial recognition system, lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, and the social functions of brain structures” (p. 181) supports feminist theory and feminist therapy process.

Neuroscience research is supportive of feminist therapy in ways that are both real and metaphorical. There is unarguably great potential here. However, before we wax too positive, it’s important to heed a warning. Beginning with Plato (at least) and throughout the history of time, the main way in which physical (or brain) differences between the sexes have been used is to marginalize females and undercut their viability as equal partners in the human race (see Brain Box 10.2). With that caveat in mind, let’s respect feminism with some multitasking: Let’s celebrate the positive parallels between human neurology and feminist theory, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on how neuroscience is being used to limit or oppress girls and women.

That time when I conducted a scientific research study designed to test the effectiveness of using hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum and transport 18 people to the future so they could fill-out perfect March Madness brackets.

Flower in Bricks

You can probably tell by the title of this post that I’m pretty stoked about scientific research right now.

I typically don’t do much empirical research. That’s why it was a surprise to me and my colleagues that, about six weeks ago, I spontaneously developed a research idea, dropped nearly everything else I was doing, and had amazing fun conducting my first ever March Madness bracket research project.

My research experience included a roller coaster of surprises.

I somehow convinced a professor from the Health and Human Performance department at the University of Montana to collaborate with me on a ridiculous study on a ridiculously short timeline.

My university IRB approved our proposal. Seriously. I submitted a proposal that involved me hypnotizing volunteer participants to transport them into the future to make their March Madness bracket selections. Then they approved it in six days. How cool is that?

I managed to network my way onto ESPN radio (where we called the study ESP on ESPN; thanks Lauren and Arianna) and onto the Billings, MT CBS affiliate (thanks Dan).

And, this is the teaser: with only 36 participants, the results were significant at the p < .001 level.

Damn. Now you know. Scientific research is so cool.

Of course, there’s a back-story. While you’re waiting in anticipation to learn about those p < .001 results, you really need to hear this back-story.

Several years ago, while on a 90-minute car ride back from Trapper Creek Job Corps to Missoula, my counseling interns asked me if I could hypnotize someone and take them back in time so they could recall something that happened to them in a previous life. I thought the question was silly and the answer was simple.

“Absolutely yes.” I said, “Of course I could do that.”

Questions followed.

My answers included a ramble about not really believing in past lives and not really thinking that past life hypnotic regression was ethical. But still, I said, “If someone is hypnotizable, then, I’m sure I could get them into a trance and at least make them think they went back to a previous life and retrieved a few memories. No problem.”

Have you ever noticed that once you start to brag, it’s hard to stop. That’s what happened next, for several years.

Somewhat later in another conversation, I started exaggerating bigly. I decided to extend my imaginary prowess into a fool-proof strategy for generating a perfect March Madness bracket. I said something about, “Brains being amazing and that you can suddenly pay attention to the big toe on your right foot and, at nearly the same time, project yourself not only back into your 7-year-old self, but forward in time into the future. That being the case,” I waxed, “it’s pretty obvious that I could hypnotize people, break down the space-time continuum, and take them to a future where all the March Madness basketball games had been played and therefore, they could just copy down the winners and create a perfect March Madness bracket.”

Through this process, I would turn a one-in-a-trillion possibility into absolute certainty.

I enjoyed bragging about my imaginary scenario for several years. That is, until this year, when, I decided that if I was set on bragging bigly, I should also be willing to put determined it was time to put my science where my mouth is (or something like that). It was time to test my hypnosis-space-time-continuum hypothesis using the scientific method.

We designed a pre-test, post-test experimental design with random assignment to three conditions.

Condition 1: Education. Participants would receive about 20 minutes of education on statistics relevant to making March Madness bracket picks. My colleague, Dr. Charles Palmer, showed powerpoint slides and provided insights about the statistical probabilities of 12s beating 5s and 9s beating 8s, and “Blue Blood” conferences.

Condition 2: Progressive Muscle Relaxation. The plan was for Daniel Salois, one of my graduate students and an immensely good sport, to do 20 minutes of progressive muscle relaxation with this group.

Condition 3: Hypnosis. I would use a hypnotic induction, a deepening procedure, and then project participants into the future. Instead of having everyone fill out their brackets while in trance, I decided to use a post-hypnotic suggestion. As soon as they heard me clap twice, they would immediately recall the tournament game outcomes and then fill out their brackets perfectly.

Unfortunately, on short notice we only recruited 36 participants. To give ourselves a chance to obtain statistical significance, we dumped the progressive muscle relaxation condition, and just had the EDUCATION and HYPNOSIS conditions go head to head in a winner-take-all battle.

Both groups followed the same basic protocol. Upon arrival at the College of Education, they were randomly assigned to one of two rooms (Charlie or me). When the got to their room, they signed the informed consent, and immediately filled out a bracket along with a confidence rating. Then they received either the EDUCATION or HYPNOSIS training. After their respective trainings, they filled out a second bracket, along with another confidence rating.

We hypothesized that both groups would report an increase in confidence, but that only the EDUCATION group (but not the HYPNOSIS group) would show a statistically significant improvement in bracket-picking accuracy. We based our hypotheses on the fact that although real education should help, there’s no evidence that anyone can use hypnosis to transport themselves to the future. We viewed the HYPNOSIS condition as essentially equivalent to raising false hopes without providing help that had any substance.

IMHO, the results were stunning.

We were dead on about the EDUCATION group. Those participants significantly increased their confidence; they also improved their bracket scores (we used the online ESPN scoring system where participants can obtain up to a maximum of 320 points for each round; this means participants got 10 points for every correct pick in the first round, with their potential points doubling in every round, and concluding with 320 points if they correctly picked the University of North Carolina to win the tournament).

Then there was the HYPNOSIS group.

HYPNOSIS participants experienced a small but nonsignificant increase in their confidence. . . but they totally tanked their predictions. We had a participant who picked Creighton to win it all. We had one bracket that had Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State in the final. We had another person who listed a final score in the championship game of 34-23. When I shared these results to our research class, I said, “The HYPNOSIS participants totally sucked. They did so bad that I think they couldn’t have done any worse if we had hit them all on the head with a 2 x 4 and given them concussions and then had them fill out their brackets.”

So what happened? Why did the HYPNOSIS group perform so badly?

When told of the outcome, one student who had participated offered her explanation, “I believe it. I don’t know what happened, but after the hypnosis, I totally forgot about anything I knew, and just wrote down whatever team names popped into my head.”

My interpretation: Most of the people in the HYPNOSIS group completely abandoned rational and logical thought. They decided that whatever thoughts that happened to come into their minds were true and right.

It’s probably too much of a stretch to link this to politics, but it’s hard not to speculate. It’s possible that candidates from both parties are able, from time to time, to use charisma and bold claims to get their supporters to let go of logic and rational thought, and instead, embrace a fantastical future.

Another faculty member in our department offered an alternative explanation. She recalled the old Yerkes-Dodson law. This “law” in psychology predicts that optimal arousal (or stress) is linked to optimal performance. In contrast, too much arousal or too little arousal impairs performance. She theorized that perhaps the hypnosis participants had become too relaxed; they were so under-aroused that they couldn’t perform.

It seems clear that the hypnosis did something. But what? It wasn’t a helpful trip to the future. Some friends suggested that maybe they went to the wrong year. Others have mocked me for being a bragger who couldn’t really use hypnosis to break down the space-time continuum.

What do you think? Do you have any potential explanations you’d like to offer? I’d love to hear them. And, if you have any ideas of which scientific journal to submit our manuscript to, we’d love to hear that as well.

Do You Want to Participate in The March Madness Research Project?

Madness 2017

If your answer is yes . . . here’s what you should do and what will happen:

  1. Email: ummadness2017@gmail.com and say “Yes, I’m in”
  2. You will be randomly assigned to one of three “March Madness Bracket Training” groups:
    • Relaxation and focusing
    • Hypnosis to view the games from the future
    • Educational information
  3. You will receive an email telling you where to meet. All groups will meet on campus at the University of Montana in a specific room in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education building at 7pm on Tuesday evening, March 14.
  4. Show up at your designated room. When you arrive, you will fill out an informed consent form, a March Madness bracket, and complete a short questionnaire.
  5. Then you will participate in the training.
  6. After the training, you will complete another bracket
  7. You will leave your completed packet and your brackets with the researcher and it will be uploaded in to the ESPN Tournament Challenge website [we will need your email address to upload your selections into the ESPN system]
  8. You will receive information at the “Training” on how to login and track your bracket. If you lose or misplace this information, you can request an additional copy via email: ummadness2017@gmail.com

To sign up for this research project, email:

UMmadness2017@gmail.com