Review: BBC Horizon programme ‘Is Your Brain Male or Female?’

 

SophiaGoldberg  Sophia Goldberg Committee member , a PhD student in Physics specialising in Cosmology, brings together her thoughts on the recent BBC Two Horizon Programme, “Is Your Brain Male or Female?”. The programme can be viewed on BBC Iplayer,

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The BBC Horizon programme: ‘Is Your Brain Male or Female?’ is a great watch, but naively, it almost made me flick to another channel. Being the most senior female member of staff in my research group (and I’m a PhD student) I was slightly afraid of being told that I have a male brain. Not exactly what I want to hear. However, the programme was far from what the provocative title implies.

They explain that there are measurable differences between adult male and female brains, but surprisingly, if you categorise people by characteristics other than sex their brains look far more similar. Which makes me think, my brain probably has more in common with those of people brought up in the same area as me than just any random female in the world. Besides, how do we know that the differences in male and female brains are due to biological hard wiring and not due to the society we’re brought up in?

I don’t want to steal the punch line, but what was disturbing was the test results from baby boys and girls. Baby boys and girls with the same (measured) crawling abilities were grouped together. A parent of each child then put a ramp at the maximum height they believed their child could crawl up. The higher the height, the more you’re willing to push your child and the better you think they can crawl. Suprise suprise, parents of baby girls consistently underestimated their child’s crawling abilities compared to parents of baby boys, for babies in the same crawling ability group. This original test was done on over 1000 babies. We’re clearly underestimating the physical abilities of females by pushing them less from a very young age. One could argue that this is evidence that, generally speaking, parents push boys to achieve more than girls.

But what I found more shocking was another test, on how baby boys and girls were treated in play time. This one’s a little awkward. It plays on the fact that when it comes to being introduced to a baby, it’s almost impossible to tell whether they’re a boy or a girl. In the test an adult’s given a baby with a pink t-shirt and clearly assumes it’s a girl. The adult has a variety of toys, including dolls and trucks to use in play time with the ‘girl’. The baby clearly doesn’t know any better so picks up the nearest toy, and is happy waving around a plastic doughnut like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the adult tries to engage the baby with a doll, avoiding the ball and the truck. Afterwards, the adult said that the baby ‘girl’ clearly enjoyed playing with the doll and was consequently surprised, and probably a bit embarrassed – I would be, to find out that the ‘girl’ was very much a boy. This also happened the other way around, an adult was given a baby in a blue top and so consequently assumes it’s a boy. In play time the baby was instantly interested in a car and truck and the adult encouraged that, sticking to the ‘boys toys’ at all costs. The adult was also surprised to hear that the ‘boy’ was in fact a girl. It seems that most children have a lot less choice than you might initially think. Their characteristic identities are clearly being shaped from a very young age. And it doesn’t take much to extend this and say that those brought up to be interested in trucks, bricks and lego may, in the future, be engineers or scientists who study STEM subjects and those brought up with dolls may be more interested in caring jobs, like parenthood. Yet, both are important characteristics to encourage in young children. Looking at the little girl happily play with a truck, you can see her as a future engineer, it’s sad that most girls probably don’t have the opportunity to develop that interest – and the converse is true for boys and dolls. So why not let toys be toys and let babies decide what they want to play with?

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