jump to navigation

More on brain scans and the differences, or not, between men and women… December 5, 2013

Posted by guestposter in Science.

Many thanks to ivorthorne for writing this in response to the post here on the most recent report on brainscans and supposed “hard-wiring” of distinctiveness between women and men.

I’d second the recommendation on the thread above to read the Satel and Lilienfeld book.

Neuroscience can be useful. It typically offers a descriptive analysis. The problem is that it is often used improperly i.e. people use it as though it offered a causal analysis. I could talk about the good and the bad at length, but for the purposes of this site, I think the most useful thing I could do is post a quote from Nicholas Torneke:

“Many modern cognitive theories or information processing theories use neurobiology in their explanatory models and see different brain structures and activity taking place with them as causes of behaviour. Although seemingly more scientific, this is much the same as the assumptions underlying hypothetical structures like schemas. And even though brain structures are obviously available for contact in time and space, the basic, pragmatic objection remains: Brain structures, or what occurs in them, are not external to the behaviour they are said to cause. They are, in fact, a part of the same beahviour. If I lift my hand, events are taking place in my arm, my shoulder, my aorta, my brain and more. But all of these phenomena are a part of my action of lifting my hand. In behaviour analysis, behaviour is defined as an action performed by the organism as a whole, and a part of the action cannot explain the action in its entirety. The behaviour of ‘lifting my hand’ is an action performed by me as an entire organism and what takes place in my brain cannot suffice as the cause of my action, and more than what happens in my arm, my shoulder or my aorta. All of these are contributing elements and therefore are parts of the action. And in the behaviour analytic approach, the cause of the act cannot be a component of the action itself; causes must be sough in events the precede and/or follow the action. They are to be found in the action’s context.”

Torneke would be a modern behaviourist who follows in the footsteps of B.F. Skinner (who CLR readers might be interested to know, was something of an anarchist). Skinner and the radical behaviourists focused on causal explanations. Skinner thought that scientific accounts of psychology should focus on natural selection (species), cultural selection (culture) and selection by consequences (individual).

Reading the Independent article, I’m reminded of brain imaging research into pianists and taxi drivers. Both of these groups are found to have had neurological differences from their non-taxi driver and non-pianist peers. Would anybody seriously claim that they are “hardwired” to be taxi drivers or pianists?

If people don’t believe that people are genetically hardwired to become pianists or taxi-drivers, why are they so quick to accept that men and women are “hard-wired” to become masculine or feminine. Studies indicate that people are far more likely to support psychological theories when they correspond to their beliefs. When people are confronted with research that goes against their beliefs, they tend to believe that these beliefs are not something that can be validly studied.

Of course, it would be equally ridiculous to suggest that men and women are constructed without any input from their genetic inheritance. Some of the ridiculous reactions to evolutionary psychology illustrate this. However, it is important to note that adaptations related to psychological characteristics, typically come in the form of dispositions or preparedness to learn certain behaviours, They are not reflexes or fixed action patterns.

One example of the brain ‘neuroplasticity’ can be found in the case of autism. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is generally agreed that there is a strong genetic component. It is typically described as a life-long condition. That said, a study published last year showed that many of those who received the Early Start Denver Model behavioural intervention demonstrated increases in IQ, social skills and normalised brain functioning in comparison to a control group. That is to say, that they presented with an atypically functioning brain (as measured by EEG) for certain measured activities and after treatment they presented with a typical brain activity. This showed that even in a condition regarded as chronic and global and with a population who find it difficult to learn, brain activity changes in response to environmental alterations.

Anyway, I’ve gone on longer than I’d hoped to, but the last thing I’d like to add is a link to a 2008 study. It shows why articles like the Independent’s are so influential.


People are more likely to believe the same argument when the argument is presented alongside a brain image than when it is not.

For some good advice on how to deal with neuro-bunk, try this Guardian article instead:


Pianist brains:


Taxi Drivers:


The Torneke quote comes from here:


More info on the EDSM study:



1. CL - December 5, 2013

B.F. Skinner,-‘something of an anarchist’, that is certainly surprising.
I think it may have been Koestler who said that behaviorists know what all jailers have known since time immemorial; reward-punish, reward-punish…..
And then there is the pigeon who conditioned Skinner; every time the pigeon pecked at a corner of the cage Skinner gave it food. Anyway here is the anarchist, Noam Chomsky, on Skinner-
‘In fact, there is nothing in Skinner’s approach that is incompatible with a police state in which rigid laws are enforced by people who are themselves subject to them and the threat of dire punishment hangs over all.’


2. ivorthorne - December 5, 2013

Asking Chomsky about Skinner or Behaviourism is like asking McDowell about socialism. Don’t expect accuracy.

Chomsky, of course, came to fame by attacking Skinner. His review of Skinner’s ‘Verbal Behaviour’ sold more copies than ‘Verbal Behaviour’ itself. Skinner didn’t think that Chomsky’s criticism even merited reply because of the rather obvious (to anyone remotely familiar radicial behaviourism) misunderstandings that Chomsky demonstrated. Unfortunately, more people encounter Skinner’s ideas through Chomsky, or through people who learned about Skinner through Chomsky, than by actually reading Skinner’s work.

The “police state” comments are typical Chomsky BS.

Behaviour Analysis as science describes how people learn. It isn’t an ideology. Long before Skinner or behaviourism, it was obvious that coercion affects behaviour. A better understanding of how people learn would certainly be useful to a would-be dictator just as it would be useful to marxist.

Of course, Skinner didn’t restrict himself to just describing how people learn. He also suggested how we might better use this knowledge. In his writings on counter-control, he goes beyond merely describing the methods by which an individual can counteract socially based attempts by others to control their behaviour using aversives.


He also spoke about creating a non-punitive society:



3. powerofnaming - December 6, 2013

It amazes me that people still think this. How many years has it been now since the publication of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender>


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: