TBR Pile Review: The Gendered Brain, by Gina Rippon

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Hardcover, 448 pages
Published February 28th 2019 by Bodley Head
ISBN:1847924751 (ISBN13: 9781847924759)


Do you have a female brain or a male brain?
Or is that the wrong question?

Reading maps or reading emotions? Barbie or Lego? We live in a gendered world where we are bombarded with messages about sex and gender. On a daily basis we face deeply ingrained beliefs that your sex determines your skills and preferences, from toys and colours to career choice and salaries. But what does this constant gendering mean for our thoughts, decisions and behaviour? And what does it mean for our brains?

Drawing on her work as a professor of cognitive neuroimaging, Gina Rippon unpacks the stereotypes that bombard us from our earliest moments and shows how these messages mould our ideas of ourselves and even shape our brains. Taking us back through centuries of sexism, The Gendered Brain reveals how science has been misinterpreted or misused to ask the wrong questions. Instead of challenging the status quo, we are still bound by outdated stereotypes and assumptions. However, by exploring new, cutting-edge neuroscience, Rippon urges us to move beyond a binary view of our brains and instead to see these complex organs as highly individualised, profoundly adaptable, and full of unbounded potential.

Rigorous, timely and liberating, The Gendered Brain has huge repercussions for women and men, for parents and children, and for how we identify ourselves. 

My Review

I bought this book at the beginning of the year and have been reading it on and off since February. After I bought it I realised I also had the audiobook, so I’ve been listening on my walks and reading the book. I like having a physical copy of the book so I can reference things easily. I need to for this review because there are things I am not amused about (mostly autism related stuff).

I have complicated feelings about this book. It confirms and updates information I already had from previous reading regarding the whole ‘female/male brain’ nonsense. Just so we’re all on the same page, the conclusions based on current research is that there is no such thing as a female or male brain, that apparent sex differences disappear when adjusted for body size etc. and that the human brain is so plastic that it can change with experiences and social pressures/stereotypes.

It was really well written and easy to understand, very comprehensive and debunks so many myths peddled by neurotrash sellers. I was also pleased to see that she didn’t discuss matters she has no expertise in, particularly transgender mattes, although she briefly mentions trans people in the final chapter.

So, why am I conflicted, since this book confirms my biases (even if they are based on actually understanding the data)? Because the author says some very wrong things about autistic people, and uses outdated terms for trans people – referring to trans women as ‘male to female transsexuals’.

Rippon is insistent that autism is more prevalent in boys than girls, completely ignoring the biases against the diagnosis of girls and the misdiagnosis that is rampant in the medical community. At one point she refers to it as a mental illness. She hypothesises that we have no ability to form priors which is why we tend to be restrictive in our interests – no, we know exactly what people are like so we don’t go out.

She also sings the praises of Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done so much harm to the autistic community that he shouldn’t be allowed near autistic people ever again, and he seriously shouldn’t have been given a knighthood. He’s a massive sexist, who promoted the ‘extreme male brain’ hypothesis and won’t back down because it justifies his Empathising/Systematising hypothesis and his place as a pre-eminent autism researcher. I know neurotypical autism researchers have to support each other, but she really needs to start talking to us rather that treating us as lab rats.

Generally, this was an excellent addition to the canon, building on previous work by other writers, with the added bonus of clear debunking of bad science and even worse science journalism. Just ignore her about autism.

I also have the audiobook so I will add that the audiobook was well narrated.

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