Are men and women equal?

27 11 2016

Are men’s and women’s brains different? In other words, are the differences in how men and women think rooted in biology?

It is an 18th century question, according to Gina Rippon, an eminent neuroscientist. When I posed the same question to my 9 year old, just for the fun of it, he basically mirrored the above sentiment. He thought that the question is absurd. When I pressed him further on whether could there be a scientific and objective evidence that there’s indeed some difference, he refused to take the bait. He stood his ground and refused to consider the question because he reasoned, the question “are men and women equal?” in itself suggests that they may not and hence lead to discrimination, which is by all means an undesirable and an incorrect behavior. In other words, he treats it as a leading question. Oh boy!  What Gina means by her comment is that several advancements have happened since 18th century that effectively and conclusively answered that question in negative.

Regardless of any insinuations and despite our need to be politically right, I think it’s still an interesting and relevant question to think about even in this century. Among the many differences we commonly observe, some are myths, some are culturally driven, while some are rooted in biology and/or evolution. Take for example, the notion that women are more emotional than men. It’s not exactly true because what’s different is more expression of an emotion rather than the emotion itself. The observed difference could well have been only a result of cultural and social stereotyping. I guess more or less similar reasoning can be given to most of the stuff you find in the gospel – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. :). But some differences do exist.

With all the advancements in neuroscience and biology, we have greater insights into human brain now than ever. In fact, today’s neuroscience sees little difference in how women and men are fundamentally capable of thinking. Whatever stereotypes we have going around are just that – stereotypes largely based on deep cultural notions and the resulting psychological impact of acting on those stereotypes. For example, take a typical belief that women are  not (or cannot be) as good at math as men. In fact, time and again the test scores reveal the same. But capability is not at the root of this trend. When the cultural expectation is for boys to outperform girls in math, and the girls believe it as everyone else, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the attitude towards competition and the anxiety induced resulted from cultural stereotypes that causes girls/women to under perform in certain areas (Study).

But some argue that nature and evolution cannot be overruled.  Historically, men had always been specialized in competing for mates, and women in caring for the offspring. According to Helena Cronin, a Darwinian philosopher, the different reproductive strategies of two sexes with completely different sets of associated costs and benefits, lie at the root of all gender differences between men and women. This survival tendency has clearly established different patterns of behavior and thereby nurtured disparate strengths in men and women.

And of course, one should not rule out the role of biology. The male hormone of testosterone is clearly associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, dominance, assertiveness etc., while estrogen promotes stable mood, sense of well-being, improved cognition etc. (An interesting tidbit is that humans are naturally female and testosterone masculinizes boys in the womb.) As per Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has done extensive research on autism observes that “higher levels of fetal testosterone could explain increased prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in males”, following the theory that “the male brain is programmed to systemize and the female brain to empathize”.  Is this why women are considered more adept at social thinking and interactions compared to men. Testosterone is also strongly associated with violent and anti-social behavior. Hmm! Women also have testosterone, but men of course are characterized by much higher levels (10 times compared to that in women).

Another perception is that men tend to be more analytical than women or women tend to be more intuitive than men, hence the notion that men are largely left-brained and women are right-brained. Studies suggest that male brains may be optimized for motor skills while female brains may be optimized for combining analytical and intuitive thinking. Men also perceived to be laser focused while women are multi-taskers. Women tend to absorb more and store it all in their brains compared to men. Could these differences be explained by the hunter-gatherer theory, the sexual division of labor, where men normally pursued risk taking activities of hunting, while women were relegated low-risk task of gathering rich calorie for nurturing? Or do they have true biological causes? There are a lot of contradictory arguments and lot of conflicting “evidence”.

Neuroplasticity is perhaps the most important and fascinating discoveries in recent times. There is nothing static about ourselves – not our bodies, which regenerates itself with new cells every 6 months or so, to our brains, defined by the interconnections among neurons that can strengthen or weaken depending on the experiences and behavior thereby redefining them constantly. Isn’t it amazing? Change is indeed the only constant. 🙂 As our brains are getting continuously rewired, based on external stimulation, nature and nurture are so strongly intertwined that I think it’s difficult to disentangle them and say for sure where one ends and the other starts.

From the evolutionary perspective, we still have the same basic instincts as our primal ancestors. The gender differences (some if not all) too are rooted in them. But in today’s world, many of them maybe are irrelevant. We are not living in wild and are not facing the same kind of survival problems. Mankind’s development happened so rapidly that evolution and nature needs time to catch up. Am damn curious to know as to what the next evolutionary changes for us would be – what our basic instincts would be. Sometime in future when physical strength and all other evolutionary differences between men and women become less and less relevant for survival, can we achieve a gender neutral society? A society where no gender has an advantage over the other. Well, is it a good thing? It certainly sounds like it is. But who knows!





Relationships and happiness

25 09 2014

Relationships are an important part of our happiness. We derive a major chunk of our happiness from our various relationships –  both intimate and otherwise. Research has shown that number of friends is a good predictor of happiness. Also that talking with friends is strongly related to being happy. A Daniel Kahneman study found that intimate relations and socializing are the most highly associated experiences with positive emotions.

The converse is true too. Loneliness causes unhappiness. Lonely people have weaker immune system, difficulty of sleeping, and hyper-inflammation in their bodies. It is interesting to note here that social exclusion/loneliness (social pain) activates the same regions of the brain that signal physical pain.

From evolutionary perspective, we are a care-giving species. we tend to reconcile when conflict occurs (a reconciling species),  we have a sense that we are all fairly similar, we are a hyper-coordinated species. We imitate the behavior of other individuals in our group. We tend to maintain monogamy ( or at least try to).

We have lost some of our ultra-sociality now evident by the increasing no. of divorces, less happy marriages, and loneliness. So, what are the obstacles? – insecure style of attachment is one. There are three styles of attachment (John Bowlby):

  • Secure – loving, warm, and affectionate
  • Anxious – always worry about the trustworthiness of the bond ; worries, intrusive, insecure, feeling of abandonment; more likely to have experienced divorce, abuse, or loss of a parent
  • Avoidant – cold, aloof, dismissive

Secure people tend to have greater life satisfaction, greater happiness, more likely to be in stable relationships, experience more positive emotions on a day-to-day basis, more optimistic, more likely to forgive, to offer social support to their partners. Several studies have found that inducing feelings of attachment security in adults can help overcome some of the negative effects of an insecure attachment history.

It is argued that early childhood attachment patterns predict adult attachment styles in romantic relationships later in life. However, Meghan Laslocky, in this article, says that the pattern can be changed. She feels that it will help: to first learn about one’s attachment style (knowledge is power), then seek out partners with secure attachment style, find a therapist, and go to couple therapy -if both have insecure style.

Scientific studies have shown that we are also biologically wired to socially connect. We have something called “vagus nerve”, which is strongly related to feelings of connection and care toward others.- it is interconnected to oxytocin networks, regulates inflammatory responses to disease, it relates to stronger immune system, it helps you communicate, to empathize, feel compassion. Oxytocin is a hormone that is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” the “love hormone,” or the “moral molecule.” Oxytocin increases monogamous tendencies in mammalian species. It quiets stress responses. It’s a promoter of family attachments, social connections and friendships.

Can we seek and achieve happiness outside of our relationships? Absolutely yes, and it’s required too. Though relationships – life partner, children, parents, close friends, – contribute a lot, they are not everything. Depending solely on someone or a few for our happiness is a mantra for disaster. It’s difficult for both the parties. It often results in feelings of disappointment on one side and burden on the other side.

Part 3 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2





Folk numeracy

16 10 2009

According to Michael Shermer, who coined the term, Folk numeracy is our natural tendency to misperceive and miscalculate probabilities, to think anecdotally instead of statistically, and to focus on and remember short-term trends and small-number runs.

For more explanation, read his article “Why Our Brains Do Not Intuitively Grasp Probabilities” on Scientific American.

Well, this looks like heavy stuff and in a way it is. This term doesn’t seem to be a very well-known one and googling it will only point you to the Michael Shermer’s articles on Scientific American and his book The Mind of the Market. Then, how and where (and why) did I come across this term? This was brought up by my instructor in the BI/DW class. To be frank, I didn’t see the connection then and have difficulty to comprehend the association even now. 🙂 My best guess is that he might be referring to the enormous amount of data involved in a BI project, and our incapability to accurately gauge it.

Anyways, I duteously read the recommended articles and even got a copy of The Mind of the Market from the library. I felt drawn to the concept and immediately became curious to know more. So, I’ve started reading the book. I have to admit that I’m actually struggling through the book, trying to understand the heavy economic and evolutionary jargon, supplementing my mission with inputs from the wikis to make myself familiar with such concepts as liberalism, conservatism, capitalism, mercantilism etc. Despite the huge effort, I’m persevering in the hope that the read would be rewarding in the end. Now, after reading 3 chapters, I must say I’m glad that I stayed on course. Obviously some of the stuff is above my head but reading such a complex work is a new experience for me.

Till now, he talked about how the evolutionary and economic systems are similar in that they are both driven from the bottom rather than from the top. In  Nature, evolution is caused by the natural selection (the actions and interactions of the nature and life) and not by some designer at top. Likewise, the economy is driven by the consumers and not by the producers/government. Michael Shermer is clearly pro-Adam Smith and pro-Darwin. As you all know, Adam Smith is often regarded as the Father of Economics. His most notable contribution is ‘The Wealth of Nations’, in which he argued against mercantilism and for barrier-free trade/market.