Meet the neuroscientist shattering the myth of the gendered brain

Why asking whether your brain is male or female is the wrong question

Pink and blue string intermingled in the shape of a brain
 Pink brain, blue brain? ‘The science has moved on.’ Illustration: Kyle Bean/The Observer

You receive an invitation, emblazoned with a question: “A bouncing little ‘he’ or a pretty little ‘she’?” The question is your teaser for the “gender reveal party” to which you are being invited by an expectant mother who, at more than 20 weeks into her pregnancy, knows what you don’t: the sex of her child. After you arrive, explains cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon in her riveting new book, The Gendered Brain, the big reveal will be hidden within some novelty item, such as a white iced cake, and will be colour-coded. Cut the cake and you’ll see either blue or pink filling. If it is blue, it is a…

Yes, you’ve guessed it. Whatever its sex, this baby’s future is predetermined by the entrenched belief that males and females do all kinds of things differently, better or worse, because they have different brains.

“Hang on a minute!” chuckles Rippon, who has been interested in the human brain since childhood, “the science has moved on. We’re in the 21st century now!” Her measured delivery is at odds with the image created by her detractors, who decry her as a “neuronazi” and a “grumpy old harridan” with an “equality fetish”. For my part, I was braced for an encounter with an egghead, who would talk at me and over me. Rippon is patient, though there is an urgency in her voice as she explains how vital it is, how life-changing, that we finally unpack – and discard – the sexist stereotypes and binary coding that limit and harm us.

For Rippon, a twin, the effects of stereotyping kicked in early. Her “under-achieving” brother was sent to a boys’ academic Catholic boarding school, aged 11. “It’s difficult to say this. I was clearly academically bright. I was top in the country for the 11+.” This gave her a scholarship to a grammar school. Her parents sent her to a girls’ non-academic Catholic convent instead. The school did not teach science. Pupils were brought up to be nuns or a diplomatic wife or mother. “Psychology,” she points out, “was the nearest I could get to studying the brain. I didn’t have the A levels to do medicine. I had wanted to be a doctor.”

Gina Rippon shot at Aston Brain centre
 ‘We are now at the point where we need to say, forget the male and female brain – it’s a distraction’: neuroscientist Gina Rippon. Photograph: Jonathan Cherry/The Observer

A PhD in physiological psychology and a focus on brain processes and schizophrenia followed. Today, the Essex-born scientist is a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, Birmingham. Her brother is an artist. When she is not in the lab using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques to study developmental disorders such as autism, she is out in the world, debunking the “pernicious” sex differences myth: the idea that you can “sex” a brain or that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain. It is a scientific argument that has gathered momentum, unchallenged, since the 18th century “when people were happy to spout off about what men and women’s brains were like – before you could even look at them. They came up with these nice ideas and metaphors that fitted the status quo and society, and gave rise to different education for men and women.”

Rippon has analysed the data on sex differences in the brain. She admits that she, like many others, initially sought out these differences. But she couldn’t find any beyond the negligible, and other research was also starting to question the very existence of such differences. For example, once any differences in brain size were accounted for, “well-known” sex differences in key structures disappeared. Which is when the penny dropped: perhaps it was time to abandon the age-old search for the differences between brains from men and brains from women. Are there any significant differences based on sex alone? The answer, she says, is no. To suggest otherwise is “neurofoolishness”.

“The idea of the male brain and the female brain suggests that each is a characteristically homogenous thing and that whoever has got a male brain, say, will have the same kind of aptitudes, preferences and personalities as everyone else with that ‘type’ of brain. We now know that is not the case. We are at the point where we need to say, ‘Forget the male and female brain; it’s a distraction, it’s inaccurate.’ It’s possibly harmful, too, because it’s used as a hook to say, well, there’s no point girls doing science because they haven’t got a science brain, or boys shouldn’t be emotional or should want to lead.”

The next question was, what then is driving the differences in behaviour between girls and boys, men and women? Our “gendered world”, she says, shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health. If that sounds like a familiar 20th-century social conditioning argument, it is – except that it is now coupled with knowledge of the brain’s plasticity, which we have only been aware of in the past 30 years.

“It is now a scientific given,” says Rippon, “that the brain is moulded from birth onwards and continues to be moulded through to the ‘cognitive cliff’ in old age when our grey cells start disappearing. So out goes the old ‘biology is destiny’ argument: effectively, that you get the brain you are born with – yes, it gets a bit bigger and better connected but you’ve got your developmental endpoint, determined by a biological blueprint unfolding along the way. With brain plasticity, the brain is much more a function of experiences. If you learn a skill your brain will change, and it will carry on changing.” This is shown to be the case in studies of black cab drivers learning the Knowledge, for example. “The brain is waxing and waning much more than we ever realised. So if you haven’t had particular experiences – if as a girl you weren’t given Lego, you don’t have the same spatial training that other people in the world have.

If, on the other hand, you were given those spatial tasks again and again, you would get better at them. “The neural paths change; they become automatic pathways. The task really does become easier.”

String in the pattern of a brain, the left half blue, the right half pink.
 Colour definition: the idea that you can ‘sex’ a brain is ‘neurofoolishness’, says Rippon. Illustration: Kyle Bean/The Observer

Neural plasticity throws the nature/nurture polarity out of the lab window. “Nature is entangled with nature,” says Rippon. Added to this, “being part of a social cooperative group is one of the prime drives of our brain.” The brain is also predictive and forward-thinking in a way we had never previously realised. Like a satnav, it follows rules, is hungry for them. “The brain is a rule scavenger,” explains Rippon, “and it picks up its rules from the outside world. The rules will change how the brain works and how someone behaves.” The upshot of gendered rules? “The ‘gender gap’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Rippon regularly talks in schools. She wants girls to have leading scientists as role models, and she wants all children to know that their identity, abilities, achievements and behaviour are not prescribed by their biological sex. “Gender bombardment” makes us think otherwise. Male babies dressed in blue romper suits, female ones in pink is a binary coding that belies a status quo that resists the scientific evidence. “Pinkification”, as Rippon calls it, has to go. Parents don’t always like what they hear.

“They say, ‘I have a son and a daughter, and they are different.’ And I say, ‘I have two daughters, and they are very different.’ When you talk about male and female identity, people are very wedded to the idea that men and women are different. People like me are not sex-difference deniers,” continues Rippon. “Of course there are sex differences. Anatomically, men and women are different. The brain is a biological organ. Sex is a biological factor. But it is not the sole factor; it intersects with so many variables.”

I ask her for a comparable watershed moment in the history of scientific understanding, in order to gauge the significance of her own. “The idea of the Earth circling around the sun,” she bats back.

Letting go of age-old certainties is frightening, concedes Rippon, who is both optimistic about the future, and fearful for it. “I am concerned about what the 21st century is doing, the way it’s making gender more relevant. We need to look at what we are plunging our children’s brains into.”

Ours may be the age of the self-image, yet we aren’t ready to let the individual self emerge, unfettered by cultural expectations of one’s biological sex. That disconnect, says Rippon, is writ large, for example, in men. “It suggests there is something wrong in their self-image.” The social brain wants to fit in. The satnav recalibrates, according to expectations. “If they are being driven down a route that leads to self-harm or even suicide or violence, what is taking them there?”

On the plus side, our plastic brains are good learners. All we need to do is change the life lessons.

How gender stereotypes led brain science

Research so far has failed to challenge deep prejudice, says Gina Rippon

Several things went wrong in the early days of sex differences and brain imaging research. With respect to sex differences, there was a frustrating backward focus on historical beliefs in stereotypes (termed “neurosexism” by psychologist Cordelia Fine). Studies were designed based on the go-to list of the “robust” differences between females and males, generated over the centuries, or the data were interpreted in terms of stereotypical female/male characteristics which may not have even been measured in the scanner. If a difference was found, it was much more likely to be published than a finding of no difference, and it would also breathlessly be hailed as an “at last the truth” moment by an enthusiastic media. Finally the evidence that women are hard-wired to be rubbish at map reading and that men can’t multi-task! So the advent of brain imaging at the end of the 20th century did not do much to advance our understanding of alleged links between sex and the brain. Here in the 21st century, are we doing any better?

One major breakthrough in recent years has been the realisation that, even in adulthood, our brains are continually being changed, not just by the education we receive, but also by the jobs we do, the hobbies we have, the sports we play. The brain of a working London taxi driver will be different from that of a trainee and from that of a retired taxi driver; we can track differences among people who play videogames or are learning origami or to play the violin. Supposing these brain-changing experiences are different for different people, or groups of people? If, for example, being male means that you have much greater experience of constructing things or manipulating complex 3D representations (such as playing with Lego), it is very likely that this will be shown in your brain. Brains reflect the lives they have lived, not just the sex of their owners.

Seeing the life-long impressions made on our plastic brains by the experiences and attitudes they encounter makes us realise that we need to take a really close look at what is going on outside our heads as well as inside. We can no longer cast the sex differences debate as nature versus nurture – we need to acknowledge that the relationship between a brain and its world is not a one-way street, but a constant two-way flow of traffic.

Once we acknowledge that our brains are plastic and mouldable, then the power of gender stereotypes becomes evident. If we could follow the brain journey of a baby girl or a baby boy, we could see that right from the moment of birth, or even before, these brains may be set on different roads. Toys, clothes, books, parents, families, teachers, schools, universities, employers, social and cultural norms – and, of course, gender stereotypes – all can signpost different directions for different brains.

Resolving arguments about differences in the brain really matters. Understanding where such differences come from is important for everyone who has a brain and everyone who has a sex or a gender of some kind. Beliefs about sex differences (even if ill-founded) inform stereotypes, which commonly provide just two labels – girl or boy, female or male – which, in turn, historically carry with them huge amounts of “contents assured” information and save us having to judge each individual on their own merits or idiosyncrasies.

With input from exciting breakthroughs in neuroscience, the neat, binary distinctiveness of these labels is being challenged – we are coming to realise that nature is inextricably entangled with nurture. What used to be thought fixed and inevitable is being shown to be plastic and flexible; the powerful biology-changing effects of our physical and our social worlds are being revealed.

The 21st century is not just challenging the old answers – it is challenging the question itself.