Tag Archives: Ben Barres

Our Brains Are Gendered … by the Scientists Who Study Them

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Laurie and Debbie say:

Lise Eliot, in her review of Gina Rippon’s The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain sums up the central message of the book as “a gendered world will produce a gendered brain.” Since our aggressively gendered world produces endless myths about gendered bodies, gendered emotions, and gendered preferences, no one should be the least surprised that (extremely gendered) neuroscientists have extended this simplistic binary into the realms of neuroscience.

The history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse. Rippon, a leading voice against the bad neuroscience of sex differences, uncovers so many examples in this ambitious book that she uses a whack-a-mole metaphor to evoke the eternal cycle. A brain study purports to discover a difference between men and women; it is publicized as, ‘At last, the truth!’, taunting political correctness; other researchers expose some hyped extrapolation or fatal design flaw; and, with luck, the faulty claim fades away — until the next post hoc analysis produces another ‘Aha!’ moment and the cycle repeats. As Rippon shows, this hunt for brain differences “has been vigorously pursued down the ages with all the techniques that science could muster”. And it has exploded in the past three decades, since MRI research joined the fray.

Eliot does not mention (so perhaps Rippon does not either) that any questions of gendered brains must rely on a certainty that we know which brains are male and which brains are female (and that all brains are one or the other), which is in itself a fatally flawed assumption on which to build. The International Olympics Committee, perhaps one of the organizations in the world with most to gain from being able to make a bright-line gender test, has repeatedly failed to be able to do so. In 2018, they simply gave up.

So all gendered neuroscience (“neurosexism”) rests on a faulty foundation. But Rippon, even if she doesn’t question the foundation, has many critical comments about the structure:

… the hunt for proof of women’s inferiority has more recently elided into the hunt for proof of male–female ‘complementarity’. So, this line goes, women are not really less intelligent than men, just ‘different’ in a way that happens to coincide with biblical teachings and the status quo of gender roles. Thus, women’s brains are said to be wired for empathy and intuition, whereas male brains are supposed to be optimized for reason and action.

This was how researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia framed a highly touted 2014 MRI study that seared into the public imagination a picture of men’s and women’s brains as diametrically opposed subway maps: the connections in women are mostly between hemispheres, and those in men within them (M. Ingalhalikar et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 823–828; 2014). However, the map omits the vast majority of connections that did not differ between the study’s adolescent participants; nor did it control for puberty-related maturation or, once again, for brain size, all of which reduces apparent male–female difference.

According to Eliot, the last part of Rippon’s book

… brings us into the twenty-first century, although not to any happy ending. It focuses on women in science and technology, and how the gendered world — including the professionalization of science and a masculine stereotype of “brilliance” — has impeded their entry into, and advancement across, this high-status realm. Talented women are regarded as “workhorses”, men as “feral geniuses”, a distinction that children internalize by the age of six, according to research by Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian (L. Bian et al. Am. Psychol. 73, 1139–1153; 2018). And all of this factors into the brain-building cycle of differential expectations, self-confidence and risk-taking that drives boys and girls down different trajectories of career and success.

“Brain-building” here is meant literally; as we learn what is expected of us, our brains (to some degree, at least) modulate themselves to fit. And the reinforcement is constant and vicious. Transgender neuroscientist Ben Barres, who transitioned after he had already built a career in neuroscience, is often quoted for his comment “By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

Rippon apparently just touches the fringes of the questions of transgender and genderfluid people, noting that the vast majority of people are still locked within the gender binary. Eliot concludes “The brain is no more gendered than the liver or kidneys or heart.”

What’s In a Headline? That Which We Call a Scientist …

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Laurie and Debbie say:

We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December.  Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.

We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.

Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:

While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.

In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.

And he was a remarkable human being:

“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”

Beyond direct mentorship, Barres repeatedly spoke up for groups who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, including women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. He would repeatedly talk about the biases and systemic barriers that keep such groups from succeeding in their careers, often raising the topic in the middle of keynote talks about glia. “Since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain … I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science,” he once told neuroscientists at a conference in Lake Arrowhead.

 

His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.

An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.

“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”

The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.

Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:

By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.

The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central  gender history.

Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article,  his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.

So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.

And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.