Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Girls' and Boys' Brains: How Different Are They?: Part 3

The truth about girls' and boys' brains -- and why it matters.
An article from By Connie Matthiessen

Nature and nurture

If the differences between the male and female brains are relatively modest, why are people so eager to believe the opposite?

Eliot points out that emphasizing differences is more compelling than the more humdrum reality. "Sex differences in the brain are sexy," she points out.

It's true that gender differences make for good copy. Brizendine’s claim, for example, that women use 20,000 words a day while men use only 7,000, neatly fit well-worn stereotypes about chatty women and taciturn men. After the hardcover version of Brizendine's book came out, these claims were discredited — it turns out that men and women speak roughly the same number of words each day — and Brizendine took it out of subsequent editions of her book. But the truth received much less hype than the hyperbole.

Sexy or not, emphasizing the innate differences between the male and female brain discounts the latest brain science. The human brain continues to develop throughout life. The essential material we're born with changes every day based on what we’re exposed to. It’s not nature or nurture — it’s both.

"Simply put, your brain is what you do with it," Eliot writes.

Generalizations about inherent male or female skills can have a self-fulfilling effect, reinforcing stereotypes and expectations that prescribe the way girls and boys are taught. "Use it or lose it" is a common refrain when it comes to the brain — that is, if areas of the brain are not used, they wither, just like an unused muscle. If a math teacher has lower expectations for the girls in the class, he may not challenge them the same way he does his male students. Or if a parent doesn't expect a son to be empathic, she may send him messages that it’s acceptable to be selfish.

Eliot believes that the emphasis on brain differences by Brizendine and others has led to "a brand-new wave of stereotyping...The more we parents hear about hard-wiring and biological programming, the less we bother tempering our pink or blue fantasies, and start attributing every skill or defect to innate sex differences. Your son's a late talker? Don't worry, he's a boy. You daughter is struggling with math? Its okay, she's very artistic."

These kinds of assumptions and stereotypes have been shown to have a powerful negative effect, based on a phenomenon known as "stereotype threat," which is the net negative effect stereotypes often have on real academic outcomes.

In one study, for example, researchers tested two groups of undergraduate students of both sexes, all skilled math students. Before taking the test, one of the groups was informed that women usually didn't don't do as well on the test as men do. The women in the group not informed of this stereotype performed just as well as the men. The women informed of the negative assumption scored significantly lower than the men.

These days, gender stereotyping is arguably more damaging to boys than to girls, when it comes to academics. "While parents of girls keep raising their expectations, parents of boys are doing just the opposite," according to Eliot. "We blame every lapse on boys' lack of maturity, or lesser verbal skills , or minimal self-control, and lower our goals for their achievement and love of learning."

Words and numbers

Literacy and math are two areas where stereotypes about gender-based abilities are common. Girls mature earlier in general, and do consistently better than boys in reading- and writing-related skills through college, a reality that no doubt helps explain girls' higher school-achievement level overall. But scientists have found no evidence that this achievement gap has anything to do with the structure of the brain.

"Language and literacy are learned skills," Eliot points out in Pink Brain, Blue Brain. "Education, not biology, is both the cause and the answer to sex differences in reading skills."

On the other hand, boys score consistently higher than girls on math and science standardized tests, so it has been popularly assumed that boys are somehow born with more "math brain.” But math achievement gaps may have less to do with innate abilities than with cultural expectations. Researchers at the University of Washington found that by second grade, a majority of girls and boys hold the stereotype that "math is for boys."

Another recent study demonstrates that the math achievement gap isn't universal: Girls do better in math in countries with the greatest degree of gender equity in school. The fact that girls are beginning to catch up to boys in both math and science is further proof that these abilities are not innate.

Where do we go from here?

Eliot offers a number of concrete suggestions for parents to help their children transcend gender stereotypes in learning and development. Boys should be encouraged to read, for example, to help strengthen reading and verbal skills. Playing sports, chess, and building games can help girls improve spatial abilities. Boys should be encouraged to babysit and engage in other caregiving activities to foster nurturing skills. Girls should be given a range of math and science opportunities, and encouraged to compete.

There is still much we don't know about the human brain in general, and about male and female differences in particular. But the more we learn about the brain, the more complex and magnificent it seems -– and the greater the potential for every girl and boy to develop a limitless range of talents and passions.


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