"Just Say Know": Musings on Measuring Brains

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.

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Welcome back! Hope you are feeling better.
Since this is fairly close to my area of expertise, I definitely wanted to respond to your question, "why we feel we have to measure brain size... and relate it to intelligence".

First, "intelligence" is not the right term for regional studies. I'm not sure what is the best term is, but perhaps performance differences. As for why we care, I'll start with the pure science reason and say that it's interesting. Wouldn't it be interesting to see that athletes have a large section of their brain devoted to motor coordination and writers have structural differences in langauge areas? As for gender, isn't it really interesting that distribution men's and women's brains have some fundamental differences in size and density of synaptic connections, but they can function the same way? How are areas used differently? There are terrible books like "The Female Brain" by Louann Brizendine, which focus on the biggest stereo types of gender differences, but true links between structure and individual variation (within and across gender) really is interesting.

The extreme case is lesion studies where someone loses a brain region and a specific cognitive function. These cases have taught us more about how the brain works and anything before the age of noninvasive imaging. With noninvasive imaging we can now study differences and changes without waiting to tragedy to strike someone.

As for practical benefits, we need an understanding of normal variation to better understand and treat diseased states. For example, a potential early sign Alzheimer's disease is decrease volume in the temporal lobe while the similar fronto-temporal dementia often starts by showing a decrease in the frontal lobe. Being able to distinguish these two early could affect treatment. A patient comes in and gets an MRI. Are the volumes large or small? What's the baseline?

Here is also where gender is very important. On average woman's brains ARE smaller. If you do a study with only men and say a volume range of 5-10 is "normal" and lower is bad and you apply that to women you'll have a disaster. The simplest soluntion is to bin on topics such as gender and have a normal range for each. A better solution is to find some correction factor such as brain volume or gray matter volume, but these are sometimes time consuming and difficult to measure. Of course the other option is that the disease progresses difference in men and women (there are different average onset ages) and gender is vital to diagnosis and treatment.

Anyway, I can write a lot more, but I figure I've said enough for now.

As bcsi shows, there are lots of interesting questions about our brains and how they work. The problem is that whenever something is seen to be different between men and women, the media pick it up, get it completely wrong (even more wrong, I think, than for most science stories), and then add ridiculous titles to their articles like "finally scientists discover why you can't get along with your wife". Then people take these stories as some sort of reliable proof that it's okay to be a sexist ass. Why are people so interested in these stories in particular as opposed to other science news and why can't we have a higher standard for our news?

Lisa has articulated some of my frustration...but I also blame some of the scientists, as well as the media, because there are scientists who feed into the media's desire for these kinds of stories. I don't have a problem with brain research that seeks to understand function. My quibble is with the kind of research in which scientists set out looking for differences between men and women mainly because they want to find differences between men and women, and then these differences are sure to be overlayed with cultural assumptions about the relative value or social roles of men and women.

Why, for example, do we have people doing research to look for a "gay gene" or a structure in the brain that would identify who's gay and who's not? It's not just because it's "interesting". It's "interesting" because being gay is something that is problematized in our society. Finding some sort of biological basis (if such a thing could even be done - my critique of these studies would occupy a number of blog posts) would not "solve" the problematizing of being gay, it would only shift the location of the problematizing. If we could say people are definitively "born" gay or are "biologically gay", then some people would argue that we need to think about finding cures (surgical, medicinal, whatever).

We look for differences between men and women not because they are interesting; we find such differences interesting because we think differences between men and women are relevant and meaningful, no matter what the difference is. We start with the assumption that such differences must exist because men and women are different, so we need to find out how they are different, and act on that information.

For a different perspective, at least in the realm of psychology, check out Janet Hyde's 2005 paper in American Psychologist "The Gender Similarities Hypothesis". http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/amp606581.pdf

My quibble is with the kind of research in which scientists set out looking for differences between men and women mainly because they want to find differences between men and women

I've met very few neuroimagers whose research program is focused on gender differences. I know people who focus on only male or female populations and most people use gender as one analysis factor to make sure a gender difference doesn't confound a study result. Some of these become gender differences results that make the press. Gender studies is clearly one area of interest to you so perhaps you're seeking more of these and that stick in your mind more (or perhaps I'm ignoring a huge swath of literature)

As for the biology of gayness, what if we expanded the topic to the biology of sexual attraction. Why are certain people attracted to others? How do hormonal changes affect these attractions and desires in cycles or over a lifetime? What role does genetics play? Does this sound like interesting science to you? Back to the issue of biology of gayness, I think this science has benefited gay rights. When gayness is viewed as a choice the person has no special rights. If, as the science has unquestionably shown, there is a strong biological component (genetic and/or environmental) the issue can't be dismissed. Yes some people might look for a "cure," but I think it's safe to say that the advancement of gay rights has parallelled are increase understanding of the biological basis of "gayness"

For differences versus sameness, both have a place in science. The case study or an examination of the outlier are the classic examples of the sciences of differences. Linking any variation to a cause brings a better understanding of a whole system. That said, pop psych studies that say women are better/worse than men in doing X are garbage unless there's an attempt to understand the cause of those differences.