The male brain

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Louann's Brizendine's The Male Brain has just come out.  I haven't read it yet — for some reason, the publisher didn't send me a review copy — and so I'll reserve judgment until my copy arrives. But Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks has an evaluation ("Brizendine, true to stereotype", 3/24/2010) based on an Opinion piece by Brizendine on CNN 's web site ("Love, sex, and the male brain", 3/24/2010).

Judging by that Op-Ed, Dr. Brizendine's new book is cut from the same cloth as her earlier one, The Female Brain. (See here, here and here for links to previous LL discussion.) Vaughan quotes this passage from the CNN piece

Our brains are mostly alike. We are the same species, after all. But the differences can sometimes make it seem like we are worlds apart.

The "defend your turf" area — dorsal premammillary nucleus — is larger in the male brain and contains special circuits to detect territorial challenges by other males. And his amygdala, the alarm system for threats, fear and danger is also larger in men. These brain differences make men more alert than women to potential turf threats.

and notes that

Male and female humans are indeed the same species, but we are not a species which has a dorsal premammillary nucleus because it's only been identified in the rat.

Furthermore, there is no reliable evidence that amygdala size differs between the sexes in humans and a recent study that looked specifically at this issue found no difference.

The reference to sex (non-)differences in amygdala size is specific and telling (J. Brabec et al., "Volumetry of the human amygdala – An anatomical study", Psychiatry Res 2010).  Dr. Brizendine is clearly up to her old tricks here, confidently setting out "scientific facts" that are unsupported (or even contradicted) by the scientific literature.

But the issue about the dorsal premammillary nucleus is less clear to me — Vaughan bases his debunking on a PubMed search, which does turn up only references to work in rodents. But maybe Brizendine has found some work that measures this small and obscure piece of the brain in male and female humans — I'll take a look at the footnote(s) provided for this point in her book. (I don't expect to find anything relevant, alas, but fair is fair.)

Overall, as Vaughan points out,

The rest of the article is full of Brizendine's usual style which is to take a common stereotype of male or female behaviour and than to 'explain' it with a overly-simple, one dimensional and usually not directly tested brain explanation.

He cites this specific example:

All that testosterone drives the "Man Trance"– that glazed-eye look a man gets when he sees breasts. As a woman who was among the ranks of the early feminists, I wish I could say that men can stop themselves from entering this trance. But the truth is, they can't. Their visual brain circuits are always on the lookout for fertile mates. Whether or not they intend to pursue a visual enticement, they have to check out the goods.

His comment:

Got that? Testosterone is responsible for men looking at breasts, perhaps even falling into an irresistible tit-driven trance, and we can't help it. Are there any scientific studies on whether hooter staring is related to testosterone levels? (Sadly) No.

In general, this new book certainly looks like another collection of what I've called scientific  bible stories:

As I've watched the reaction to Louann Brizendine's book over the past few months, I've concluded that "scientific studies" like these have taken over the place that bible stories used to occupy. It's only fundamentalists like me who worry about whether they're true. For most people, it's only important that they're morally instructive.

What would the producers of CNN Headline News, NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me" or the BBC's "Have I got news for you" say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods? I imagine that their reaction would be roughly like that of an Episcopalian Sunday-school teacher, confronted with evidence from DNA phylogeny that the animals of the world could not possibly have gone through the genetic bottleneck required by the story of Noah's ark. I mean, lighten up, man, it's just a story.

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19 Comments »

  1. John Cowan said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 10:54 am

    If I were a publisher, I'd make sure that only reviewers who gave positive reviews to an author last time got review copies this time. Publishers and booksellers already do similar things to determine print runs and order volumes, which is why it's suicide for an author to publish a book under their own name which sells less than their other books have: the next book after that will get orders based on the low-volume book, and so on until the author can't sell anything. Consequently, the well-known and popular novelist Harry Turtledove published his biography of Justinian under the fairly transparent pseudonym H. N. Turteltaub.

    [(myl) I didn't get a review copy of The Female Brain either, and I would have been shocked to get a copy of the new work. But whatever the sales trend for these two works, there's no question that sex (difference) sells.]

  2. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:45 am

    "What would the producers of CNN Headline News, NPR's "Wait, wait, don't tell me" or the BBC's "Have I got news for you" say, if presented with evidence that they've been peddling falsehoods?"

    I'm pretty sure the producers of HIGNFY wouldn't give a damn. It's a comedy panel show, not a news show. It's always a bit disingenuous when Jon Stewart says that The Daily Show is comedy, not news, but HIGNFY is a different kettle of fish. It would undermine the comedy of TDS if their critiques of the media and politicians were based on or promoted falsehoods. For HIGNFY, it wouldn't make a jot of difference. In that show, the news is just a premise on which to build gags, the same way that pop music is an excuse for the cast of Never Mind The Buzzcocks to build gags – the truth or otherwise of the stories is irrelevant.

    [(myl) "...the truth of otherwise of the stories is irrelevant." My point is that the same thing can be said about most science reporting in the popular press. Talking points from Brizendine's first book made their way into outlets at all levels of the journalistic food chain, from the Washington Post and the New York Times to CNN and the Daily Mail. And both the apparent calculation of editorial interest, as well as the level of fact checking, seem to have been similar to those employed by the news-related comedy shows.]

  3. Dierk said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    What's with homosexuals, do males then have a female brain and vice versa?

    [(myl) So it has been claimed, but...]

  4. David Cantor said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    Yeah, and "Wait, wait, don't tell me" is a comedy show, too. At least its got a liberal slant. Peter Sagal finds Republicans hilarious.

    [(myl) Well, WWDTM has a regular feature in which the contestants are asked to distinguish "real" news stories from clever fabrications. So the show does, at least nominally, subscribe to the view that there's a difference... With respect to the question of whether the "real" news is actually true or not, Peter Sagal's line (as reported by Phil Resnik, an old college friend of his) is that some stories are "too good to check". I'm sympathetic, but would like to point out that this view of the role of "news" and "facts" is pretty much the same as it is on CNN or Fox News.]

  5. Matt said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    Dierk's reaction echoes mine. As I gay man, I can confidently say I've never been entranced by a woman's breasts. Is my testosterone faulty? The pop-sci sex differences literature is not just sexist, but also incredibly heterosexist.

  6. J said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    @David Cantor: While I'd agree that WWDTM has a liberal slant, it's fair to say that Sagal finds *politicians* hilarious. Indeed, one of their favorite stalking horses is Dennis Kucinich. One can argue that's fair (he is eccentric, and although I agree with very much of his politics, he can make it come off sounding more insane than I think it is), but one can't argue that that's part of the liberal slant. It's more that the writers and host skew liberal, imho, then that their ridicule does. They find everyone funny, but at the end of the day (most of the panelists and host seem to) simply identify more with the intentions of the funny fools on the political left.

    All this is to say, WWDTM does skew liberal, but like Daily Show, it also *skewers* everybody. It also is like the Daily Show in that they do try to get the facts right, and issue apologies/retractions/what have you, if still in the vein of good fun and self-irreverence. And it does call itself a "News Quiz Show." One could argue that simply means they are quizzing people on the News, and whether the News itself is accurate or not is besides the point, but I would disagree. As was said with TDS, it actually somewhat undermines the purpose of WWDTM if they're trafficking in inaccuracies, although there are assiduously trying less hard to be as biting or socially relevant as TDS rather than being amusing. But it's the difference between a class clown, and a class smartass — it doesn't matter if the clown knows what they're talking about. But you're a poor-ass smartass if your sardonic and smug observations are themselves wrong and ill-informed.

  7. Kutsuwamushi said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    Oddly, as a possessor of two apparently trance-inducing objects, I've found that my male friends–straight or gay–are able to look at me in the face, rather than in the chest.

    Perhaps this is because they respect me, and respecting a woman destroys their testosterone levels.

  8. Jan Freeman said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    @J: I don't think "stalking horse" is what you mean, unless the term has galloped a tremendous distance from the sense I learned. "Target" maybe? Or am I missing some nuance?

  9. Rubrick said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    On WWDTM, in the case of the Bluff the Listener pieces, they always conclude with a recorded snippet from someone involved firsthand in the True story, so it's at least sourced to that degree. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the wackier tidbits in Lightning Fill In The Blank turned out to be apocryphal, though.

    On the other hand, I also wouldn't be surprised to find that WWDTM's fact-checking is more thorough than that of a lot of "actual" news programs.

  10. Áine ní Dhonnchadha said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    I'm a lesbian, and while I COULD be entranced by The Titties(tm), I manage to function in civilised society.

    This same attitude is soaked through the Muslim community – I am a Muslim -, that men are uncontrollably and wildly lusting and thus women have to pray behind them and cover their bodies. I always reply to obnoxious men that perhaps the sight of a fine male behind to a straight woman is just about as entrancing as the inverse… but when you are praying, you're not there to gaze at asses!

  11. Ian Preston said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

    You can see the HIGNFY reference at 6:20 here by the way. Contrary to previous indications it is not in the "headlines" round but in "Widdy's Wheel of News". It's brief, flippant and difficult to say whether the tone is better described as sceptical or credulous with regard to the content of the "research." It is however embedded within unquestioning discussion of news concerning further "research" on the number of years women spend shopping.

  12. uberVU - social comments said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: The male brain http://goo.gl/fb/pV6W

  13. [citation needed]» Blog Archive » the male brain hurts, or how not to write about science said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 9:46 pm

    [...] 3/25: plenty of other scathing critiques pop up in the blogosphere today: Language Log, Salon, and Neuronarrative, and no doubt many [...]

  14. AK said,

    March 25, 2010 @ 9:48 pm

    any designer knows that brains draw eyes attention to breaks in textures, colors, etcetera… lines… this may be a better explanation to why men "stare" at breasts. Women do it tooA

  15. J said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 1:35 am

    @Jan Freeman: No, you're probably right. Brain fail.

    I'd like to replace it with some other unnecessarily indirect phrase for "target", but target is what I meant. Brain fail X 2.

  16. Jorge said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    @J: My guess is you wanted "laughing stalk" and came up with "stalking horse". There's probably a name for this phenomenon.

  17. Zubon said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    But "laughing stalk/stock" is a different phenomenon.

  18. Jim said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    "Dierk's reaction echoes mine. As I gay man, I can confidently say I've never been entranced by a woman's breasts. "

    Yeah, me neither. Brizedine flatters herself. Testosterone makes me look at her husband's stubbly jawline, not her breasts.

    "but when you are praying, you're not there to gaze at asses!'

    Indeed. The Muslim posture of prayer seems designed to make you transcend all that.

  19. Peter Erwin said,

    March 26, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    Consequently, the well-known and popular novelist Harry Turtledove published his biography of Justinian under the fairly transparent pseudonym H. N. Turteltaub.

    Turtledove/Turteltaub's Justinian was a historical novel, not a biography. The issue was that Turtledove was known as a popular science fiction writer, and so the fear was that a venture into historical [as opposed to alternate-historical] fiction might result in lower sales and thus lower pre-orders for his subsequent science fiction. (Ironically, Turtledove's first two SF novels were published under a completely different pseudonym, Eric G. Iverson, because his editor worried potential readers wouldn't take a name like "Turtledove" seriously.)

    But, really, "don't bother soliciting reviews you expect to be negative" seems like such an obvious move for publishers that I doubt it's necessary to bring in the arcana of pre-ordering and genre-specific pseudonyms…

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