Monthly Archives: December 2014

A strange find

At the beginning of December, the night before I was flying to Zürich, I tried to find some Swiss Francs in the drawer where such things are usually kept. No Francs were lurking there, but instead at the bottom of the drawer there were two tightly folded pages of lined paper. I did not think that I had ever seen them before. But, they were covered with my own handwriting, in pencil.  I was curious and apprehensive of what these pages would reveal. It turned out to be the beginning of a story that I had started to write 40 years ago.StoryDrawstoryP1

A very long time ago, in the early 1970s, I wrote a few short stories that were inspired by a Science Fiction class that Chris and I attended. I was incredibly proud when Philip Strick, our course teacher, included one of my stories in a collection called Antigrav (Arrow Books). I still list it as publication  No. 19 (1975) in my full bibliography. However, in 1975, my life changed: our son Martin was born in April that year, and our son Alex in 1978. For obvious reasons, there was no time for dilettante writing. Continue reading A strange find

Memories came back, memories of the days long before word processors and when we lived in Herne Hill. This was one of many story ideas, which started with a title, and not much more.  I never knew where the titles came from but I used to let them lead me with my pencil to somewhere I hadn’t thought of before. The title of this story “The weather at the bay” struck me as very strange, and I wondered whether it came from a dream. I was immediately determined that I would finish the story, and that I would not tinker with the text.  It already contained some few crossed out words and phrases. I think that writing stories was for me an antidote to writing journal articles. Here I could be unconcerned and playful. Would I have written more stories if my life had been different? A different life, a parallel universe…the ending quickly fell into place before I went to sleep that night.

The weather at the bay by Uta Frith (1974?/2014). The throng pushed into the old fashioned lift and this suddenly separated a small and mixed group of people from the milling multitude in the shopping arcade. The lift elevated them high up above the crowds. They entered a world of dark brown furniture, white tablecloths and tobacco smoke. Amelia and Harry entered the restaurant and were immediately delighted by the magnificent view of the sea through bay windows. The old head waiter in his tail coat just finished an announcement with the words: “-and the weather at the bay is fair.”

They sat down on velvet chairs with their little daughter. Henrietta wore a gown of white lace and blue ribbons and with her long brown hair looked as much like a Renoir painting as the parents had intended her to be. There was much humming and talking noise from people at other tables, eating elegant titbits, calls for hurrying waiters, clinking of china on china and silver on silver.

The sea was grey and much darker than the sky. Dashes of white foam could be seen all along the wave front. A noticeable wind added to the sensations of coolness and freshness. A very dry faintly pink sandy track ran down from the hotel to the sea. Clumps of dark pines on slender stems were visible, but the grey houses were difficult to focus and of uncertain style and form. People were down there too but seemed little more than quickly moving black and white spots.

A gong sounded and the headwaiter started to make another announcement. In the general noise, Harry & Amelia could not make out the words, except that the weather at the bay was fair. Let’s go to the sea, they decided [HERE THE STORY HAD STOPPED]

even though they had a vague impression from the announcement that a boating accident had occurred. Many people were now moving on the sandy track towards the beach. Others hurried over a bridge framed on both sides by lattice work. They could hardly be distinguished. Amelia exclaimed: “How like a dream it seems. So many people. Why are there are  there always so many people in dreams?” Henrietta asked: “Are these people not real then?” -“Of course they are”, answered Harry, “they are real while they are there”.

A loudspeaker announcement could now be heard. There was indeed a boating accident, and the small body of a child was lying on the beach, surrounded by helpers and bystanders. They drew nearer, swept along by everybody into a thickening mist. “Who is this child?” asked Amelia. “It’s Octavius Raynott”, was the reply, “we have no idea why he drowned; he was an excellent swimmer; he won some contests even; we are all devastated”. – “This cannot be true!” cried Amelia , “Octavius Raynott is my father! He died of lung cancer only 2 years ago.” Harry watched horror stricken as Amelia and Henrietta disappeared into the mist that had so rapidly formed. Before he could run after them, he had to close his eyes in a flash of pain. The weather had changed dramatically, and the sun shone directly into his eyes. He got up from the bench he was sitting on looking at a calm sea with a blue and turquoise sheen. He put on his sunglasses and left the book he had been reading lying on the bench, just as he had found it. The words on the page read “the weather at the bay is fair.” -“No, it isn’t”, he said, as he was walking towards the bright sun.

Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: Cordelia, you just published a review article in Science, His brain, her brain?  where you argue that it is far harder to interpret gender differences in the brain than people think. And it’s a call for more rigorous science in the field. Now, your paper with Gina Rippon, Rebecca Jordan-Young and Anelis Kaiser earlier this year lays out in some detail what rigorous research designs would actually involve. I would love to know a bit more about why you wrote it.

Mary Cassatt (1878) Woman reading Le Figaro: Courtesy of www,marycassatt.org

Cordelia: We wanted to write something positive about how research in this area could be done better, so we got together to write a paper that would be helpful to researchers, editors, reviewers and science communicators. We wanted to make a constructive contribution. After all, there has been a lot of controversy in this area,

Continue reading Neurosexism: A conversation with Cordelia Fine

Uta: You can say that again! The papers that report gender differences are almost always suggesting that women’s brains work differently, aka less well. So half the readers say, “At last there is some hard evidence for differences that are blindingly obvious”, and half say, “Of course we know that women and men are equal and there are no real brain differences, and this research must be hopelessly biased.” I expect you call the first position “essentialist”, because it presumes that being female means being one kind of thing, being male another, forever. It’s the forever bit that makes it suspect.

Cordelia: Happily, the perspectives are definitely not that polarized. One thing that’s worth stressing though is that criticisms of this area of research don’t stem from a belief that it’s intrinsically problematic to look at the effects of biological sex on the brain. But implicit assumptions about female/male differences in brain and behavior do influence research design and interpretation. They do this in ways that can give rise to misleading conclusions that additionally reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.

Uta: It would be strange to rule out this type of research on the grounds that it is bound to reinforce gender stereotypes. We can be aware of their influence and take them into account. But we need to be fearless when we read Nature’s book. It does not always tell us what we’d like to hear. I worry about our tendency to be ultra-critical when the findings are against our fondly held beliefs. But isn’t science exactly about being able to overturn fondly held beliefs?

Cordelia: I certainly agree that we shouldn’t rule out particular kinds of research because we may not like the conclusions. The concern is with conclusions that are unwarranted – an issue of ‘scientific correctness’ rather than ‘political correctness’ – and the goal is not to be ultra-critical, but to make visible the implicit assumptions that are guiding research.

Uta: We tend to be less critical when a paper appears in a prestigious journal because we can assume that there has been a stringent peer review process. You discuss the controversial Ingalhalikar et al.’s structural connectome article published in 2013 in PNAS – a reputable journal.

Cordelia: This article measured brain connectivity in a large sample of 8-22 year olds, and found greater intra-hemispheric connectivity in males and inter-hemispheric connectivity in females, on average.

Uta: This sounds like a good sort of gender difference, at first glance it has nothing to do with a gender bias, but it certainly is grist to the essentialist mill. I remember when I first read this paper I was thinking, so there is now some evidence for an essentialist type sex difference, and we can start to think what it means.

Cordelia: In our article, we make the case that researchers are often working from an implicit ‘gender essentialist’ model, that assumes that the brains and psyches of females and males are highly distinct, and differences between them are natural, fixed and invariant across time and place. This subtly influences research design and interpretation, and the Ingalhalikar et al. study was a good example of exactly that.

Uta: So what’s wrong with that?

Cordelia: In an earlier study, the researchers had reported behavioural sex differences in executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills and social cognition. This was in a larger sample from which these participants were drawn. But these differences were very modest: 11 of the 26 effect sizes were null/d<0.1, and the largest was d=0.33. Yet despite the substantial behavioural similarity between the sexes, the researchers interpreted their anatomical findings as underlying profound behavioural differences between the sexes, without actually testing for brain-behaviour correlations.

Uta: And what did you think of their interpretation of the brain differences?

Cordelia: They speculated that “[m]ale brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”

Uta: Perhaps they couldn’t think of what else the differences could be due to.

Cordelia: There were two other possibilities they might have considered, but didn’t, presumably because of the essentialist frame. One is that the female/male interconnectivity differences are a brain size effect, rather than a sex effect. As you know, the male brain is on average about ten per cent larger than the female brain. They also didn’t pay any empirical or theoretical attention to the possible influence of gendered experiences on brain and behaviour. I happened to be sent the article by a journalist for comment, and I wrote back to her:

“Ironically, even though the research from this group provides strong evidence for behavioral similarities between the sexes, provides no evidence that any modest behavioral sex differences are associated with neurological ones, and offers no information about the developmental origins of either, we can probably anticipate that this article will soon be drawn on by popular commentators as evidence that ‘hardwired’ sex differences explain why men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

Uta: This is precisely what happened.

Cordelia: Yes. The front page of the Independent, for instance, headlined with “Scientists discover the difference between male and female brains: Study reveals variation in hardwiring which may explain skills gap between women and men”.

It’s worth pointing out though that this particular example was unusual for the role of the researchers themselves in making reference to ‘hardwiring’, and in making especially incautious reverse inferences to concepts far beyond any measured behaviours (like motherly intuition). Usually this is a job left to the popularizers.

Uta: Hardwiring usually means that there is a biological cause for a behaviour. But, as you say, it could be the other way round. The hardwiring could be a result of behavioural practice. There are plenty of examples of how learning changes the brain.

Cordelia: Yes, and long before the buzz about neuroplasticity, feminist neurobiologists were writing about this ‘entanglement’: the fact that the social phenomenon of gender (which systematically affects an individual’s psychological, physical, social and material experiences) is literally incorporated, shaping the brain and endocrine system. One of the recommendations of our article is for researchers to attempt to incorporate the principle of entanglement into their research models, including more and/or different categories of independent variables that include ways of capturing the role of the environment.

Uta: We clearly need more thoughtful research in this area: You and your co-authors have made a very constructive start with your paper.

Cordelia Fine is the author of Delusions of gender.  She is ARC Future Fellow at Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Associate Professor at the Melbourne Business School and the Centre for Ethical Leadership, University of Melbourne.