Etherless Learning

learning everywhere, all the time

Bringing sex differences in the brain back down to size

Posted by Ming Ling on October 28, 2010

On “Not so fast — sex differences in the brain are overblown“:

People love to speculate about differences between the sexes, and many brain imaging studies have reported sex differences in brain structure or activity. But these results may not withstand the the tests of larger sample sizes or improved analysis techniques, and it’s too soon to know what such research says.

Cordelia Fine. From Scanner to Sound Bite: Issues in Interpreting and Reporting Sex Differences in the Brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2010; 19 (5): 280 DOI: 10.1177/0963721410383248

Key problems:

  1. Small, nonrepresentative samples.
  2. Insufficient understanding of “how neural structures contribute to complex psychological phenomena” (and runaway speculation).
  3. Popular writers misunderstanding or misinterpreting findings.
  4. Popular consumption equating “in the brain” with “innate” and giving undue weight to brain studies.
Interesting tidbits from the CDIPS article: 

  • “The anterior cingulate, for example, is activated by so many tasks that one cognitive neuroscientist known to the author refers to this region as ‘the on button’ (Geoffrey Boynton, personal communication).”
    Hmm, I thought the ACC was the “oh, $@*&!” area.
  • One popular writer attempted to explain something by “working from an implicit metaphor of the brain as pinball machine”. Uh-oh, reasoning-by-analogy gone awry again!

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