Lately, I’ve read about quite a few interesting brain imaging studies, on all sorts of topics. Collectively, these have sparked my curiosity about this question: how might brain imaging technology transform our culture far beyond its medical applications?

While many of the possibilities are exciting, others make me nervous–especially those that threaten hard-won equalities by using brain images as “evidence” that certain groups of people “are” a certain way.

Take women vs. men as an example. After centuries of struggling for equality in schools, work, and public life, women have gained significant ground in the U.S. What happens to those gains when brain imaging studies claim to demonstrate “fundamental” differences between men’s and women’s brains? For example, one recent study shows that when faced with stress, the emotional centers of women’s brains light up, whereas in men’s brains,  the “fight or flight” mechanism activates. The researchers note that this understanding could help treat PTSD, depression, and other conditions more effectively.

They probably don’t intend for it to be used to suggest that women are less suited for certain jobs than men. Of course, in the wrong hands, data like these provide fuel for people who want to turn back the clock on women’s rights. It’s a short step from this study to the argument that men are fighters and women are criers–that women are less able to make quick, hard decisions under stress, such as a political or military leader might need to. And by basing the study in brain imaging, it seems to argue for a fundamental, inherent difference–nature, not nurture–which makes it seem unquestionable, non-political…just “true.”

And this is just the problem. Whatever a researcher intends when studying differences between men’s and women’s brains, their findings are in danger of misunderstanding or abuse. The average person doesn’t necessarily grasp the nuances or context of brain imaging research, such as:

  • such studies are based on averages, and certainly don’t mean that the findings are consistent with every man’s  and every woman’s brains
  • the differences described DO result as much from nurture as nature–so there’s nothing immutable or unequivocal about them
  • often the studies are small pilots, and not definitive at all
  • the exceptions are almost as many as the rule

Click here to read Part 2, where I pick up this topic as it relates to childhood education.