Laurie Toby Edison


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Neuroscience Predicts When Women Will Say Yes

Laurie and Debbie say:

Back in October, we made fun of a junk science study done in the departments of behavioral communications and psychology at UCLA, with thirty subjects and forty-two researchers, coming to the drastically exciting conclusion that ovulating women are more likely to dress to attract men then women in other stages of their menstrual cycle.

Now, researchers at the National Institutes for Mental Health have outdone UCLA. This time, it’s the serious neurobiologists, and here’s the kind of language they use to make a related point, this one being that women in the “midfollicular phase” of the menstrual cycle are more interested in monetary reward. That’s a pretty major statement.

Here we show that during the midfollicular phase (days 4-8 after onset of menses) women anticipating uncertain rewards activated the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala more than during the luteal phase (6-10 days after luteinizing hormone surge). At the time of reward delivery, women in the follicular phase activated the midbrain, striatum, and left fronto-polar cortex more than during the luteal phase. These data demonstrate augmented reactivity of the reward system in women during the midfollicular phase when estrogen is unopposed by progesterone. Moreover, investigation of between-sex differences revealed that men activated ventral putamen more than women during anticipation of uncertain rewards, whereas women more strongly activated the anterior medial prefrontal cortex at the time of reward delivery.

There’s lots more heavy science in the full paper, which is here. When Debbie came across this a couple of days ago, she could smell the “junk science” in all the technical terminology. On page six of the seven pages of this paper we find out that this was not a 30-woman study. It was not a 20-woman study. No, they drew these exciting conclusions from 13 women, only 11 of whom actually qualified to be tested!

Now, with this huge and convincing sample, how did they test interest in monetary reward?

By showing them images of slot machines.


Here’s how we see it: folks at the NIMH are going to get tenure, or new grants, or whatever academic honors they’re seeking, by showing 11 women (and a few men) pictures of slot machines and making highly technical observations of their brains with lots of expensive equipment. Then they’re going to tell us that women who are halfway to ovulation are susceptible to monetary reward.

Here at Body Impolitic, we want to know why these questions are so important to researchers. (Interestingly enough, some of the researchers in both studies appear to be women, though the preponderance of the neurobiologists are apparently men.) We can’t help imagining a group of men in a Starbuck’s, thinking that they can get their Ph.D.’s and improve their chances of gettting laid at the same time.

Advice for researchers: 1) don’t ask the women you meet where they are in their cycle to find out whether they’re more interested in monetary rewards or in looking good. It could get you slugged, and besides, the woman you’re asking probably wasn’t one of the 11 women in the study.

Thanks to Kestrell for the pointer.

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6 Responses to “Neuroscience Predicts When Women Will Say Yes”

  1. shadygrove says:

    Morton Ann Gernsbacher (president of the Association for Psychological Science) had a brilliant column in the APS Observer a couple of months ago that dealt with just this issue in neuroscientific research. She pointed out that many of the studies in this area are tainted by serious problems with bias and stereotyping.

    An example she notes: When mothers viewed photos of their children, task-related activity in the amygdala and insula was interpreted as “reflecting the intense attachment, vigilant protectiveness, and empathy that characterize normal maternal attachment” (Leibenluft et al., 2004). But when boyfriends listened to sentences such as “my girlfriend gave a gorgeous birthday present to her ex-boyfriend,” task-related activity in the amygdala and insula was interpreted as identifying the “brain regions involved in sexual/aggressive behavior” (Takahashi et al., 2006).

    Yet another reason to caveat emptor!

  2. Earthencircle says:

    I wish we’d quit comparing apples and peas; especially since we are using the beet measurement technique!

  3. Larry Cahill, Ph.D says:

    to anyone interested in having their opinions about sex/hormone influences on brain function supported by actual facts, two articles i have written may be of interest. Scientific American, May, 2005. Nature Neuroscience Reviews, June 2006

    you may also be interested to learn that the majority of my colleagues who are interested in this highly important topic are women (in contrast to the implication of the letter above).

  4. Debbie says:

    Shadygrove, that’s completely fascinating (and I wish it was surprising). I’ll go look for that.

    Earthencircle, right on.

    Dr. Cahill, thanks for the information. We were only referring to the particular two studies we were discussing, not intending to make any generalization about neuroscientists in general or in any specific subfield of neuroscience.

  5. hsofia says:

    Studies happen all the time. Some of them really stupid or poorly done. Until they’ve been peer reviewed and vetted, they are not worth my time. Unfortunately, journalists love to report on newly released studies because they are “new” and sometimes provocative. Of course, the people the conduct the studies want to get as much publicity as possible. But I think a downside of this is that the public hears all these random and sensational things and thinks scientists are a bunch of idiots.

  6. a.w. says:

    And I am sure that neither queer women (who couldn’t care less about “attracting” men) nor the few heterosexual women who would rather pick a man for HIS attractiveness rather than be “attractive” TO him were used in this ridiculous study. Sounds like more gender-reifying evolutionary biology crap to me, or as I like to call it, unevolved biology. These ridiculous gender studies are the craniology of the 2010s (you know, those studies they did a couple of centuries ago to supposedly “prove” that those with certain types of skulls were more likely to be “criminals”). The craniology studies were used to reify racist notions, while these studies are used to reify gender norms and invisibilize those who are queer as well as those who exist outside of the gender binary (ie genderqueer and/or trans).

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