Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds

Gina Rippon. Pantheon, $30 (448p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4702-2

Neuroscientist Rippon painstakingly refutes in this exhaustive study long-held beliefs about gender’s role in the development and functioning of the brain. Rippon demonstrates how researchers’ expectations can alter a study’s findings and how false statistics become lodged in the popular imagination and repeated as facts long after they are disproven, such as the popular belief that women “on average use 20,000 words a day and men use only 7,000.” The most illuminating aspect of her account is an explanation of the “plastic” nature of the brain, particularly among infants and children. The brain’s “trajectory may not be fixed but can be diverted by tiny differences in expectations and attitudes.” Consequently, children as young as 21 months can recognize genders, and by age 5 are adhering rigidly to gender roles (centered around choice of toys, for example) based on the perceived expectations of the adults around them. This is a powerful and well-constructed argument for gender as a social construct—nurture rather than nature. Some of the harder science in the book is not layperson-friendly; Rippon’s frequently accessible contradiction of sexist myths also contains massive amounts of neuroscience data. Nevertheless, those interested in gender-related brain differences (or lack thereof) will find this riveting. (Aug.)