Jane Curry was at the Penn State – Abington campus today to perform her one-woman play, “Just Say Know” as one of the Women’s History Month events on the campus. A word about Jane: her website describes her as “an author, storyteller, performer, and recovering academic”. She is indeed all of those, and more. She’s an absolutely delightful person and if you aren’t laughing within five minutes of talking with her, then you don’t have a pulse. Or maybe your funny bone is just broken.
Since Penn State – Abington is practically in my back yard, I had the pleasure of seeing Jane’s show and the even greater pleasure of a leisurely late afternoon lunch with her afterwards. We chatted over sandwiches and salad at Anne’s Kitchen Table. (Anne’s food is awesome.)
Seeing Jane’s show and talking with her over lunch about how things were for women in college just a few decades ago made me think both of how much things have changed, and how certain things keep coming back to haunt us – the same old crap dressed up in ever fancier new forms. Of course, that’s one of the major themes running through Jane’s shows.
Yes, some things have changed. We no longer measure brain weight, or the ratio of brain weight to body weight or height, as a measure of intelligence, like those silly folk in the nineteenth century, do we? Oh wait. It turns out we do. The data in the Willerman study seem to indicate that you can learn something about IQ from brain size for men, but for women, not so much. Those confounding women and their ill-behaved brains! Still, I suppose it’s an improvement over the old days, when the conclusion was always that women were stupider than men.
But wait. Another researcher, Sandra Witelson, says maybe brain size doesn’t matter at all! Why? Because Einstein’s brain weighs less than the average adult male! Very embarrassing, you know, that whole size thing.
“Here was somebody who was clearly very clever; yet his overall brain size was average,” Witelson said. “It certainly tells you that, in a man, sheer overall brain size can’t be a crucial factor in brilliance.”
Certainly not. Something else must be important. There has to be some way to measure the brain and show who’s brilliant, because we really, really need to be able to sort people into bins. Well, forget that unreasonable brain size measurement. Let’s measure instead “regions of known function“. I don’t know if the regions of known function are the most important functional regions, but we’ve defined them, so let’s measure them.
Any program that seeks to relate brain weight, cranial capacity, or some other measure of overall brain size to individual performance ignores the reality of the brain’s functional diversity. Thus, quite apart from the political or ethical probity of attempts to measure “intelligence” by brain size, by the yardstick of modern neuroscience (or simple common sense), this approach will inevitably generate more heat than light. A more rational approach to the issue, which has become feasible in the last few years, is to relate the size of measurable regions of known function (the primary visual cortex, for example) to the corresponding functions (visual performance), as well as to cellular features such as synaptic density and dendritic arborization. These correlations have greater promise for functional validity, and less pretense of judgment and discrimination.
I’m breathlessly waiting to see which regions of known function show that women are stupider than men. You know, worse at spatial perception, or not as good at “math ability”, or whatever it is that the powers-that-be want to declare that men are better at and that it is therefore much more important to be good at and necessary to be good at for all the prestigious and high-paying jobs. Go ahead and toss women the superior verbal ability bone; it just makes them better nurturers, which we all know is not important.
The question that goes begging in all this is why we feel we have to measure brain size – or its modern equivalent, brain structure, perhaps at the cellular level – and relate it to “intelligence”. Researchers can’t seem to do these kinds of studies without making conclusions about innate gender differences despite what we know about the incredible degree to which the brain is shaped and organized, and neural pathways are constructed, after birth and throughout life. It’s a research perspective that seems to me such a limiting and constraining view of human beings.
Well, at least we no longer have men telling us that education will cause a woman’s ovaries and uterus to shrivel and will possibly make her insane. While it is true that higher levels of education are correlated with lower fertility in women, this is by choice, and we know that such women are “more likely to control their own destinies and effect change in their own communities“. It seems to me that focusing on educating, rather than measuring, women’s brains would be a much better use of one’s time, but what do I know? All that fancy lab equipment and those shiny MRI machines have got to be used for something.