Why asking whether your brain is male or female is the wrong question.
A PhD in physiological psychology and a focus on brain processes and schizophrenia followed. Today, the Essex-born scientist is a professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, Birmingham. Her brother is an artist. When she is not in the lab using state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques to study developmental disorders such as autism, she is out in the world, debunking the “pernicious” sex differences myth: the idea that you can “sex” a brain or that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain. It is a scientific argument that has gathered momentum, unchallenged, since the 18th century “when people were happy to spout off about what men and women’s brains were like – before you could even look at them. They came up with these nice ideas and metaphors that fitted the status quo and society, and gave rise to different education for men and women.”
Rippon has analysed the data on sex differences in the brain. She admits that she, like many others, initially sought out these differences. But she couldn’t find any beyond the negligible, and other research was also starting to question the very existence of such differences. For example, once any differences in brain size were accounted for, “well-known” sex differences in key structures disappeared. Which is when the penny dropped: perhaps it was time to abandon the age-old search for the differences between brains from men and brains from women. Are there any significant differences based on sex alone? The answer, she says, is no. To suggest otherwise is “neurofoolishness”.
“The idea of the male brain and the female brain suggests that each is a characteristically homogenous thing and that whoever has got a male brain, say, will have the same kind of aptitudes, preferences and personalities as everyone else with that ‘type’ of brain. We now know that is not the case. We are at the point where we need to say, ‘Forget the male and female brain; it’s a distraction, it’s inaccurate.’ It’s possibly harmful, too, because it’s used as a hook to say, well, there’s no point girls doing science because they haven’t got a science brain, or boys shouldn’t be emotional or should want to lead.”
The next question was, what then is driving the differences in behaviour between girls and boys, men and women? Our “gendered world”, she says, shapes everything, from educational policy and social hierarchies to relationships, self-identity, wellbeing and mental health. If that sounds like a familiar 20th-century social conditioning argument, it is – except that it is now coupled with knowledge of the brain’s plasticity, which we have only been aware of in the past 30 years.
“It is now a scientific given,” says Rippon, “that the brain is moulded from birth onwards and continues to be moulded through to the ‘cognitive cliff’ in old age when our grey cells start disappearing. So out goes the old ‘biology is destiny’ argument: effectively, that you get the brain you are born with – yes, it gets a bit bigger and better connected but you’ve got your developmental endpoint, determined by a biological blueprint unfolding along the way. With brain plasticity, the brain is much more a function of experiences. If you learn a skill your brain will change, and it will carry on changing.” This is shown to be the case in studies of black cab drivers learning the Knowledge, for example. “The brain is waxing and waning much more than we ever realised. So if you haven’t had particular experiences – if as a girl you weren’t given Lego, you don’t have the same spatial training that other people in the world have.
If, on the other hand, you were given those spatial tasks again and again, you would get better at them. “The neural paths change; they become automatic pathways. The task really does become easier.”