Newborn twins sleeping on white blanket, one dressed in blue and one in pink.

The way our brains develop is thought to be influenced by the gendered world in which we live.Credit: Getty

Early research into schizophrenia alerted neuroscientist Gina Rippon to what she now calls the myth of the gendered brain, a term she used in the title of her first book. By examining examples taken from brain–behaviour research during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, right up to contemporary studies, the book, published in 2019, investigates the desire to find biological explanations for gendered societal norms. Rippon argues that our brains are not fixed as male or female at birth, but are instead highly plastic, changing constantly throughout our lives and influenced by the gendered world in which we live.

The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience that Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain was written in part, she says, to address dubious research, or what is sometimes called neurotrash. Rippon first encountered it in the 2000s. At the time, she was working at the Aston Brain Centre, part of Aston University in Birmingham, UK. Shocked by the misuse of sex and gender reporting in neuroscience, she became set on changing the rhetoric. Rippon is now professor emeritus of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University.

What is neurotrash?

It is what we’d generally call pseudoscience — bringing a kind of scientific legitimacy to an argument.

Early brain images were very seductive, with people thinking, ‘Brilliant, we can find the God spot,’ for instance. Images were hijacked by self-help gurus, relationship counsellors and even those espousing single-sex education. Just adding a picture of the brain in, say, book chapters on why boys and girls are different gave tremendous credibility. Also, the beginning of this century saw ‘neuro’ everything. Just put ‘neuro’ in front for that sexy science-y feel — for example, neuromarketing or neuroaesthetics.

The word neurotrash highlights misleading information: telling stories that might be partly true, sustaining stereotypes and feeding myth continuation, for example about the right brain and left brain. This is the idea that the brain is a ‘game of two halves’, when in fact the whole of your brain is working for you the whole of the time.

These stories were often well written and certainly more accessible than arcane journals. They also resonated with people’s experiences. We believed that men and women were different, and here were the scientists saying ‘you’re right, and this is why’.

How did your own research in the field take shape?

I began my career in the 1980s, and became interested in sex differences in the brain and how different regions could be better configured for various tasks — making me one of the people I subsequently criticized.

When setting up my own laboratory, I had a range of cognitive tests, such as verbal fluency tasks or visuospatial tasks, that would allegedly differentiate men from women reliably. However, over a period of 18 months I frustratingly didn’t find any differences, so became dispirited. The research made me realize that the whole right-brain, left-brain idea is based on very shaky evidence — possibly not something to hang my future research career on. So I stopped doing that sort of work and moved on, becoming involved in dyslexia research.

Gina Rippon headshot.

Neuroscientist Gina Rippon.Credit: James Waller

In 2006, shortly after I’d joined Aston, the engineer Julia King became the university’s first female vice-chancellor. She was interested in the under-representation of women in science, and wanted to know what researchers at Aston were doing that might be relevant to understanding this.

Aware that brain imaging was being used to talk publicly about neuroscience, I reviewed how the field pursued the belief in the male versus the female brain. Horrified by the discipline’s misuse, I wrote a review and started a public conversation.

At the 2010 British Science Festival, I gave a talk about the so-called differences between women’s and men’s brains, showing that, when you look at the data, they’re not that different after all. I was trying to dispel the stereotypical myths that men are ‘left-brained’ — logical, rational and good at spatial tasks — and women are ‘right-brained’ — emotional, nurturing and good at verbal tasks.

We’re not from Mars or Venus (to quote relationship counsellor John Gray’s 1992 book), we’re all from Earth! I assumed that people would thank me and just move on, but it caused an absolute furore and gave me early exposure to media backlash.

One favourite comment (now part of my Twitter header) was from columnist Christina Odone in the The Daily Telegraph in London, who wrote that my theory “smacks of feminism with an equality fetish”. I was described as the “poor scientist … who was so wrapped up in her work she hadn’t noticed that men and women are different”.

I was also sent various images illustrating that part of the male anatomy that typically differentiates men from women, and one reader of the Daily Mail UK newspaper called me a “grumpy old harridan” in the comments section. I try to weave these into any of my science-communication talks whenever I can.

But on the positive side, lots of parents thanked me and invited me to give school talks, which I do on a fairly regular basis. I also became involved in a European Union project exploring gender gaps in mainstream science.

Looking back at that time, it resembled the game whack-a-mole, in which efforts to resolve a problem result in it appearing in a different form. So I’d give an earnest talk saying ‘this is false, don’t base parenting decisions or educational processes on such data’, and then the same issue would surface in a business article about female leaders.

What led you to write The Gendered Brain?

At a 2016 talk I gave at the Royal Institution in London, both a book agent and a publisher suggested I should write a book. All in all, it took a year to write. Luckily, I had a largely administrative post at Aston as pro-vice-chancellor in charge of international research and recruitment. I didn’t have a full-time teaching role — just one day a week on specialist final-year courses in the research area that I worked in, which helped to keep my interests and knowledge current.

Writing the book was much harder than I’d expected. Foolishly, I thought that, having given talks, I could just write a book. But I discovered two things: first, talking is very different from writing. Second, having spent my career writing academic papers, chapters and textbooks, the style was very different. This was quite a shock to me, and even more to my editor, I suspect.

What happened after publication?

I had a brilliant agent who got me a great publishing deal. Naively, I didn’t appreciate exactly what it entailed when you sign to ‘undertake any appropriate marketing events’. Agents pitch you to every relevant book festival, radio or television series. All the book festivals wanted me to attend — and having never been to one, that was really interesting.

In 2019 my feet didn’t touch the ground. When the COVID-19 lockdown started in 2020, I was returning to the United Kingdom from a talk at the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

The book was well received by those who understood that I was not a sex-difference denier and not arguing for all culture and no biology, and that I wanted to comprehend the entangled relationship between sex and gender. But, unsurprisingly, it was not so well received by those who didn’t understand this.

How do you view criticisms of the book?

If framed as a scientific argument, then criticism is fine, and in a way is why you do this, because you want to have the conversation.

Often, the communication chain involves making a fairly clear statement, which can become slightly altered from one person to the next, for example from journal editors to mainstream journalists and then readers.

There can also be reaction from social media. For example, assuming that you say men and women don’t differ, social-media trolls insist on sending pictures of why they think that isn’t the case. I remember one photo of some crop circles, which were meant to prove that men and women arrived on Earth at different times from separate planets in alternative spaceships. You can laugh at those, though.

Sometimes criticism is within the scientific community. Unfortunately, there is perhaps a defensive mentality in people who have spent most of their academic research career looking at sex differences. Often, the research might be in non-human animals, with no assumption that the findings apply to humans. But if they think that someone says their research is irrelevant, people can get quite defensive.

I would reassure them that the term ‘irrelevance’ applies only to the idea that work on (say) zebrafish or rodents can be used to explain human issues such as gender gaps in achievement.

All kinds of research are valuable in their own way, but we need to exercise caution in extrapolating between research arenas. The elephant in the room is also the need to closely define whether we are talking about purely biological research into sex differences (in any species) and/or about biopsychosocial research into gender differences (which can only be in humans).

You’re now working on a second book. What is it about?

It’s about how it is now becoming clear that many girls and women on the autistic spectrum have been completely overlooked. Almost throughout the history of autism, there has been this trope that autism is a male problem, and that has been a distraction for developing diagnostic instruments. Early imaging research was done only on boys because there were not enough girls — they didn’t ‘get’ autism.

The book will be about revisiting this and exemplifying that if we look in the wrong place or in only one place — such as through the gendered lens — we miss a large proportion of the population who could greatly contribute to our understanding of the condition.