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.

Backs to the Future

Backs to the Future

Cool stuff:

New analysis of the language and gesture of South America’s indigenous Aymara people indicates a reverse concept of time.

Contrary to what had been thought a cognitive universal among humans – a spatial metaphor for chronology, based partly on our bodies’ orientation and locomotion, that places the future ahead of oneself and the past behind – the Amerindian group locates this imaginary abstraction the other way around: with the past ahead and the future behind.

Appearing in the current issue of the journal Cognitive Science, the study is coauthored, with Berkeley linguistics professor Eve Sweetser, by Rafael Nunez, associate professor of cognitive Science and director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego.

Combinatorial Structures in Language and Visual Cognition

What gives humans the unique ability to construct novel sentences from the building blocks of language? A recent article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences proposes a “neural blackboard architecture” is capable of just this.

From the article (doi: 10.1017/S0140525X06009022):

“This paper aims to show that neural “blackboard” architectures can provide an adequate theoretical basis for a neural instantiation of combinatorial cognitive structures. […] We also discuss the similarities between the neural blackboard architecture of sentence structure and neural blackboard architectures of combinatorial structures in visual cognition and visual working memory […]”

As with all main articles in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, this one is followed by extensive comment and criticism from colleagues, and finally a reply by the authors. This provides a very deep look at the article and the issues surrounding it.

An older, but freely available, version of the article is available here.

Music and speech

I haven’t read these myself, but if anyone’s interested, Aniruddh Patel does neuroscience research on the relation between music and speech. This 2003 Nature article also has a review of some cognitive science models of musical perception as they relate to testable predictions; and this article looks for correlations between linguistic and musical idiosyncracies in different cultures (specifically, if a culture’s language is “stress-timed” vs. “syllable-timed”, does the rhythm of their music reflect that?).

If you’re into music cognition, I compiled a brief list of links (starting from Patel’s publication list and a Google search, I don’t know this field) at NeuroWiki:MusicCognitionResources.

Hypnosis can stop Stroop effect

This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis – New York Times

Very interesting stuff. Subjects were hypnotized and told that days later they would see “gibberish” symbols printed in particular colors. They needed to report back the color that the word appeared in. (For those unfamiliar, the Stroop test presents color words, like “red”, in a different color, such as the word “red” written with green ink. People have difficulty reporting the color of the word because we have a strong need to “read” the written word.)

The highly hypnotizable subjects (grouped according to a predetermined measure) essentially showed no Stroop effect (ie. no reaction time difference with conflicting word and color). And, with fMRI, they saw that normally activated visual-reading areas were not activated in these subjects.

Damn: Evidence that cursing is hard-wired

Almost Before We Spoke, We Swore – New York Times

Fun article from the NYT about swearing through the ages and its biological basis. Some relevants parts:

Reporting in The Archives of General Psychiatry, Dr. David A. Silbersweig, a director of neuropsychiatry and neuroimaging at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and his colleagues described their use of PET scans to measure cerebral blood flow and identify which regions of the brain are galvanized in Tourette’s patients during episodes of tics and coprolalia.

They found strong activation of the basal ganglia, a quartet of neuron clusters deep in the forebrain at roughly the level of the mid-forehead, that are known to help coordinate body movement along with activation of crucial regions of the left rear forebrain that participate in comprehending and generating speech, most notably Broca’s area.

The researchers also saw arousal of neural circuits that interact with the limbic system, the wishbone-shape throne of human emotions, and, significantly, of the “executive” realms of the brain, where decisions to act or desist from acting may be carried out: the neural source, scientists said, of whatever conscience, civility or free will humans can claim.

And some input from Frans about angry chimps:

Indeed, chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash.

Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University in Atlanta, said that when chimpanzees were angry “they will grunt or spit or make an abrupt, upsweeping gesture that, if a human were to do it, you’d recognize it as aggressive.”

Such behaviors are threat gestures, Professor de Waal said, and they are all a good sign.

Monkeys can do simple grammatical rules but not rules with hierarchial structure

“For example, the monkeys could master simple word structures, analogous to realising that “the” and “a” are always followed by another word. But they were unable to grasp phrase patterns analogous to “if… then…” constructions.”

(actually, in the study, the grammar that the monkeys could do was “A is always followed by B”, and what they couldn’t do was “Repeat A for some number of times, and then repeat B the same number of times”)

New Scientist article

Article in Science

Commentary in Science, with a list of some types of intelligence differences between humans and monkeys.

Language != intelligence? Patients who can't speak or produce language are still smart

BBC article

PNAS article

PNAS commentary

“The researchers made the discovery by studying three patients who were suffering from severe aphasia – they had lost the ability to understand, or produce, grammatically correct language.

For example, although they understood the words “lion”, “hunted” and “man”, they could not tell the difference between the sentences “The lion hunted the man” and “The man hunted the lion”.

But when they were presented with sums like 52 minus 11 and 11 minus 52, which were structured in a similar way, they had no problem. ”

The subjects could also still do arithmetic with expressions with parentheses.