Men's Brains vs. Women's Brains: Social Implications of NeuroimagingLast week I started discussing the social implications as they relate issues of neuroimaging and gender. If you haven’t read that article, you can access it here for the background and introduction to this topic.

Here’s another example of the neuroscience of gender at work: As of 2009, an estimated 360 public schools in the U.S. had separated (segregated?) classrooms by sex (up from 20 from just a few years earlier). Obviously, private schools have done so for centuries, and many parents and educators argue that there’s a benefit to single-sex classes. But according to one expert, there’s a new twist: about 300 of the 360 public school programs have made this choice based on neuroscientific evidence that boys and girls have fundamentally different brains.

In the public school setting, where integration has been a major mark of growing democratization and equality, what does it mean to have girls and boys taught separately because of “essential” differences in their ability to learn? In the right hands, it might mean a better education, where more students are supported based on their learning styles. In less skilled hands, it likely means confining each gender (not just girls, but boys too) to predefined roles and skills–girls as communicators and homemakers; boys as active, decisive public figures.  (There’s a great article on public school same-sex classes, their advocates, and their critics in the New York Times. I encourage you to read it!)

There is another problem with gender-based classrooms. As noted above, science studies are based on averages. No two brains are alike. Even if you believe the brains of most boys are different from most girls in basic ways, you’ve probably met kids who defy those stereotypes in one way or in many ways–a girl who can’t sit still and doesn’t want to talk things through or a boy who responds emotionally under stress. If we make the argument that the genders are different–not just because we think it’s so, but because images show differences in the brain–where does it leave the kids whose learning styles don’t fit neatly into one category? As one scholar has said, “Gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds.”

If we continue to sort by gender-defined brains, at what point do we try to “cure” or “fix” shortcomings associated with one gender’s brain or the other? Here’s one that just came out: A nasal spray with oxytocin helps make men more emotional and empathetic.

Maybe there’s a big market for things like these, but I hope not.

What ultimately worries me is that well-meaning neuroscience studies will be used as a powerful tool for a new wave of sexism (or racism, or ethnocentrism, or any other ism). There is something that seems absolute about brain imaging–that it’s telling the real TRUTH, which makes it powerfully persuasive. But studies about the brain–including imaging studies–are much more complicated and nuanced than that. We have an obligation to contextualize such studies appropriately, so that they are used in service to people rather than to revive outdated inequities.