Book Review

Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps by Lise Eliot, Ph.D. Houghton Mifflin Harcout, Boston, 2009; 420 pages, ISBN 987-0-618-39311-4, hardback, $25.00.

How different are the male and female brain? Judging by the popular press and many books on gender, the gaps are substantial and hardwired.  It is quite fashionable to explain and justify all sorts of stereotypical behavior with arguments about brain differences or hormones. Neuroscientist Eliot points out that most studies of sexual differentiation in the brain are carried out on people in their 30s or older.  But the brain is plastic, that is, it changes physiologically in response to the way in which it is used, sometimes dramatically.  Because of this plasticity, differences seen in adults may reflect how they have used their brains rather than the innate physiological state. Eliot has examined the currently available studies on brain differences in the period from the prenatal through adolescence. Her discovery? That physiological differences are in fact very small – and that some popularly accepted differences have been shown to be non-existent. 

There are a few small brain differences between the sexes prenatally, which are linked to the influence of hormones on the developing brain.  But these are far too insignificant to account for the wide differences seen in male and female behavior.  Small initial differences are exaggerated by cultural norms and pressures, childrearing practices, and the gender stereotypes that children observe, conform to and aggressively press other children to adopt.  Dr. Eliot maintains that many of the negative stereotypes (currently, that girls are worse at math and science and that boys are worse at language arts and elementary schoolwork) can be overcome by equal encouragement, by assisting children to strengthen those aspects of themselves that they may tend to neglect because of physiological or cultural forces, and by structuring learning situations that are motivating to both boys and girls.  She offers specific commonsense suggestions to parents, teachers, and others involved in rearing children.  The mother of a girl and two boys, she doesn't favor one sex over the other but seeks ways  to promote both boys and girls thriving and succeeding as fully rounded human beings.  Her goal is to help all children reach their full potential.

This book is an evenhanded, fact-packed antidote to the many works that maintain either that all differences between the sexes are cultural or that present cultural stereotypes are the natural and inevitable outgrowth of innate brain structure and chemistry. – Sally Dougherty (October 2009)

Book Reviews