Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Our Brain and the Mystique of "Hard-wiring"

How often do we hear or read statements like "This is the way his brain is wired" or "We are just hard-wired to act this way"? I encounter these expressions almost daily. Television and print media are especially keen on these mystifying phrases.

In a well-researched and truly fascinating article titled "Brain Sex: How the Media Report and Distort Brain Research," Janet Bing discusses how the talk about "hard-wiring" in the human brain is often used to promote the essentialized view of the so-called male-female differences.

Here is the link to this impressive piece of research:;jsessionid=JTQKzGYqzhDHxJkPv7dv6Sd1GdTC77

I always assign this article to my students and enjoy observing the shock they experience as they discover that the intense media blabber about male-female differences being "hard-wired" into our brains has no basis in actual scientific research.

The groundless mystique of brain hard-wiring is always used to achieve certain ideological goals. By using this phrase we buy into the ideology that goes with the concept. People talk of brain's wiring to suggest that some things cannot be changed. They just are. You are depressed? That's how you brain is wired, all you can do to deal with it is just swallow some pills. But don't ever hope to change things permanently and become depression-free for good. You are a woman? Then just accept that your brain is wired a certain way and accept all of the behaviors that your culture traditionally associates with being female. You are autistic? Don't try to look for reasons behind that, don't ever hope to analyze your condition rationally. It's wired in your brain, that's all you need to know about yourself.

Talking about brain hard-wiring does not provide us with answers. It is just a way to avoid having to look for answers to tough questions.

P.S. It seems that the link to the article stopped working in the time that has passed since I wrote this post. So here are some of my favorite quotes from Bing's great piece of research:

"Research showing difference is generally published because academic books and journals have a bias towards reporting differences and against reporting negative results. . . Investigators are much more willing to report differences between groups (and journal editors are much more eager to accept such studies) than they are to publish negative or "no-difference" results. Critics have suggested that journals contain only the tip of the sex-differences-in-laterality-research iceberg and that the majority of studies with negative results are never published. "

"Biological sex itself has turned out to be much more variable and dynamic than we ever imagined. And brain-organization patterns are even more variable from person to person, and probably even within the same person at different times. Further, on most tests of cognitive ability there is enormous overlap of men and women."

"The "facts" that the media present on any subject, however, are often those that reinforce prevailing ideologies. "

"In addition, even when facts contradictory to general beliefs are reported, readers may ignore them. People often ignore any information that conflicts with their beliefs or preconceived ideas. Schaff (1984) calls this tendency to disregard any facts and opinions that conflict with prevailing beliefs cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) and offers a summary of some of the research about it. Schaff (1984:96) explains that: "in conflict situations, if the opinions and attitudes (in the sense of readiness to act) of a human being concerning certain issues, primarily social ones, are at variance with the realities of life and if neither those realities can be brought into agreement with the said opinions nor those opinions modified without ruining the ideology of their carrier, then a psychological defense mechanism is put into operation to make one's mind immune against inconvenient information." Schaff claims that facts inconsistent with previous beliefs and biases can be intellectually acknowledged, but "emotionally blocked," overlooked, and not assimilated. "


Love Letters To Margate said...

I completely agree. I'm a (budding) literary critic and I've researched generally across various fields that I have interest in, with regards to this very issue.

I've specifically looked at (as well as feminist lit crit, sociological interpretation etc) anthropology and psychology, and all that 'hard-wired' language comes up a lot - or is the point of the research.

Unfortunately, I can't access the study, but I'll see if we have it in our Uni library.

Clarissa said...

I'm sorry that the link doesn't work! I'll try to publish the article or the excerpts from it as a separate blog post.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention!

Quisp said...

Here's another article that is useful for teaching students about gender difference and similarity: Janet S. Hyde's “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis,” argues and documents that women and men are far more similar than different. Through meta-analysis of hundreds of studies, she shows that research finds few genuine differences between women and men. She also discusses the consequences of the sad misapprehension that women and men are two different species.

Press release describing Janet S. Hyde's research

PDF of Hyde's “The Gender Similarities Hypothesis”

Clarissa said...

Thank you so much, Quisp! This is so helpful.

Clarissa said...

I just wrote a new post on the subject based on the article suggested by Quisp: