Re-examining neurosexism

My dad brought this interesting book review to my attention: Peeling Away Theories on Gender and the Brain (NYT)

In her book Delusions of Gender (which I have not read though am intrigued to do so), cognitive neuroscientist Cordelia Fine places several modern studies of early differences in brain anatomy/function into a long line of sexist explanations for supposed differences in male and female behaviors.

The basic argument is that there has been no convincing connection made between any measured structural differences (which she argues might not exist) to behavioral differences. Just another case of correlation (maybe) and not causation.

Here’s a description of study that you might already be familiar with and Fine’s take on it:

Dr. Baron-Cohen’s lab conducted research on infants who averaged a day and a half old, before any unconscious parental gender priming. Jennifer Connellan, one of Dr. Baron-Cohen’s graduate students, who conducted the study, showed mobiles and then her own face to the infants. The results showed that among the newborns the boys tended to look longer at mobiles, the girls at faces.

Dr. Fine dismantles the study, citing, among other design flaws, the fact that Ms. Connellan knew the sex of some of the babies. Because it was her face they were looking at and she was holding up the mobile, Dr. Fine says, she may have “inadvertently moved the mobile more when she held it up for boys, or looked more directly, or with wider eyes, for the girls.”

Although I am unsure about the scientific merits, it is refreshing to see a new viewpoint in this debate. It provides some food for thought on this interesting topic:

Summarizing the research, she writes, “Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.”

What all this adds up to, she says, is neurosexism. It’s all in the brain.

IARPA and trust detection

Neurodudes reader Jason M. sent me some information about a funding agency, IARPA, or Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, that is funding neuroscience-related research. I had never heard of IARPA before but it has existed since 2006 as something of an intelligence-focused DARPA. There upcoming funding deadline (Aug 21) is for projects on detecting trust signals between humans.

Just last night, I watched the tense but amazing film The Hurt Locker (don’t let the name disuade you, see the phenomenal Metacritic rating), which is about a bomb disposal squad during the recent Iraq War. There is one particularly stirring scene with a suicide bomber who claims that he was forced to wear a vest with explosives and doesn’t want to go through with it. The difficulty in the limited time before the bomb explosion revolves around whether to actually trust the man and the challenge of trusting someone when neither party speaks the other’s language. You can certainly at least understand (putting aside the ethics of war itself) why governments are interested in detecting nonverbal trust cues.

Details about the IARPA call for proposals are after the jump. Continue reading

Longitudinal study on happiness and success

The Atlantic‘s Joshua Shenk has a fascinating story about a long-running study, started in the 1930s (!), that attempts to discern what makes people happy in life. The study has collected extensive data on subjects over a 70 year period. I couldn’t stop reading the article… what an amazing dataset. But, before I say more about that, here is Shenk’s synopsis of a single case file (ie. actual data) from the study:

Case No. 158

An attractive, amiable boy from a working-class background, you struck the study staff as happy, stable, and sociable. “My general impression is that this boy will be normal and well-adjusted—rather dynamic and positive,” the psychiatrist reported.

After college, you got an advanced degree and began to climb the rungs in your profession. You married a terrific girl, and you two played piano together for fun. You eventually had five kids. Asked about your work in education, you said, “What I am doing is not work; it is fun. I know what real work is like.” Asked at age 25 whether you had “any personal problems or emotional conflicts (including sexual),” you answered, “No … As Plato or some of your psychiatrists might say, I am at present just ‘riding the wave.’” You come across in your files as smart, sensible, and hard-working. “This man has always kept a pleasant face turned toward the world,” Dr. Heath noted after a visit from you in 1949. From your questionnaire that year, he got “a hint … that everything has not been satisfactory” at your job. But you had no complaints. After interviewing you at your 25th reunion, Dr. Vaillant described you as a “solid guy.”

Two years later, at 49, you were running a major institution. The strain showed immediately. Asked for a brief job description, you wrote: “RESPONSIBLE (BLAMED) FOR EVERYTHING.” You added, “No matter what I do … I am wrong … We are just ducks in a shooting gallery. Any duck will do.” On top of your job troubles, your mother had a stroke, and your wife developed cancer. Three years after you started the job, you resigned before you could be fired. You were 52, and you never worked again. (You kept afloat with income from stock in a company you’d done work for, and a pension.)

Seven years later, Dr. Vaillant spoke with you: “He continued to obsess … about his resignation,” he wrote. Four years later, you returned to the subject “in an obsessional way.” Four years later still: “It seemed as if all time had stopped” for you when you resigned. “At times I wondered if there was anybody home,” Dr. Vaillant wrote. Your first wife had died, and you treated your second wife “like a familiar old shoe,” he said.

But you called yourself happy. When you were 74, the questionnaire asked: “Have you ever felt so down in the dumps that nothing could cheer you up?” and gave the options “All of the time, some of the time, none of the time.” You circled “None of the time.” “Have you felt calm and peaceful?” You circled “All of the time.” Two years later, the study asked: “Many people hope to become wiser as they grow older. Would you give an example of a bit of wisdom you acquired and how you came by it?” You wrote that, after having polio and diphtheria in childhood, “I never gave up hope that I could compete again. Never expect you will fail. Don’t cry, if you do.”

What fascinates me is the absolute novelty of this kind of data. Normally, when someone relates their “life story,” we willingly participate in something of a shared lie. Both listener and story-teller know that the “life story” is being told in hindsight: Memory is not perfect and humans sometimes (often, perhaps) add meaning and create unifying themes in stories where they may be none. We emphasize the good parts and try to forget the not-so-good parts. In a sense, history recounted is never truly veridical but instead tainted with everything that happened after. Which is precisely why the availability of an objective history than spans an entire lifetime (or, as objective as possible) of both a qualitative (interview) and quantitative (medical) nature is so novel.

As you might expect, the data is confusing and hard conclusions are not easy to come by. There are however some tangible factors that seemed to correlate/predict success in life, which I’ve included after the jump. Continue reading

Mouse dressage

Neuroscientists often use mouse models to understand learning and neural disease. Much of our understanding of mammalian biology comes from these amazing animals. It is commonly said that highly inbred lab mice are unintelligent. But is it true for wild mice too? In a talk last week at Harvard, Karl Svoboda referred to this fascinating YouTube video showing a mouse trained to complete an obstacle course:

Other training videos from the same trainer are available along with an official website with interesting tips about mouse training. Perhaps highly inbred lab mice are unable to replicate such feats but it is amazing to see in what detail this trainer understands mouse behavior and development:

An absolute necessity for any pet training is to understand the animal’s needs and to know about its generic behaviour, since appropriate animal training is only based on certain natural habits. For mouse agility, this means e.g. their great spatial orientation abilities and spatial memory which is worth bringing to light by relevant trick training. In nature, mice always prefer the familiar (= safe) route to their feeding site, no matter if it’s a long way round. This is also the reason why mice are unbeatable in maze tests – and a mouse agility course is nothing else than a maze without walls!
But many owners forget that if you expect your pet to show some natural habits and abilities, first and foremost the husbandry has to be species-appropriate. If your mice have to live in a small ground level cage, their three-dimensional consciousness and orientation abilities will surely be stunted or never fully develop.

Social neuroscience fMRI: Specious correlations?

Nature is reporting on potential flaw in multiple imaging (fMRI) studies of social neuroscience. Ed Vul (a graduate student in my dept) and colleagues have a paper in press that says that many of the high correlations between brain regions and social behavior are implausible, given the inherent variability/noise in fMRI. Furthermore, based on a survey of methods from individual investigators, they created a list of papers that commit, in their view, a statistical mistake (non-independence). Naturally, the authors named in the paper aren’t happy and, according to the Nature article, several rebuttals are in the works. At the very least, to my non-expert eyes, this seems like an important discussion to have about data analysis and methodology.