Neurofeminism: the call for intersectionality
In the last several decades, a new strand of feminism has arisen in the field of neurosciences under the name of neurofeminism as a collective scholarly effort to overcome the gender-essentialism in the research on sex differences in the brain. Such tendencies have been coined as neurosexism (Fine, 2008) and, according to neurofeminists, they compromise scientific research in multiple ways, which we will look into in the first part of this essay. We shall look into the ideological positions, leading to the possibility of neurosexism in science, anв then critically assess the necessity for considering sex differences in brain studies. And, finally, we will discuss the ways to bring intersectionality awareness to such studies.
History of science provides many examples of jumping to conclusions about women’s inferiority (or just innate otherness in comparison to men) based on anatomical differences of male and female brain. For example Simon Baron-Cohen (2003) has developed an “empathising-systematising theory”, stating that hard-wired differences between male and female brains drive girls to have a “female” brain, being able to identify emotions, while boys tend to have a “male” brain, being more prone to analyze and build systems. The theory does state that women may have a “male brain” and men may have a “female brain”, and also there’s a third type — “balanced” brain, displaying both patterns of thinking with the same regularity, however the theory suggests that women are twice as likely to have a “female” brain, and men are twice as likely to have a “male” brain than the other types.
Another dispute took place between neuroresearchers and neurofeminist Cordelia Fine (Connellan, 2000, Fine, 2010) on the study into sex differences on babies’ eye-response to face vs mobile objects. The research took babies under the age of 24 hours and showed them moving mechanical objects and some faces, resulting in female babies holding their gaze longer on the faces and male babies holding their gaze on mechanical objects, which supported Baron-Cohen’s theory of gendered brain, however Fine criticized the study, drawing attention to possible implicit bias if the panel of judges could guess the babies’ genders.
There have also been studies in neuroimaging (techniques, allowing to visualize the functioning of the central nervous system through computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging), stating that there’s a correlation between the amount of white matter (which men have more of) and the ability to perform spatial tasks (Gur et al, 1999). Such findings are largely advertised by popular sexist books like «Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps» (Pease&Pease, 2007), leading general public to believe in neuro-essentialism and the “hard-wiring” of different abilities in performing certain actions. That study, however, only had a sample size of 16 participants, and the results could easily be false positive.
Fine (2013) argues that although reverse inferences (the idea that activation of a particular part of the brain shows the mental process taking place) are common in neuroscience, we cannot tie any single brain region to a particular mental activity, hence conclusions about proneness for sex different behaviors are invalid. She states that the brains’ plasticity is not taken into account in these studies, although it gives a huge way to change due to “nurture” processes and social interventions. This idea is expanded in the paper by Claus Halberg, criticizing the neurosexist ideology.
According to Halberg (2022) there are three main ideological positions that lead to neurosexist views — essentialism, innatism, and neurocentrism.
Essentialist approach assumes that each kind of gendered brain has an essence, a set of traits that come together to differ this type of brain from its counterpart, and these traits are sufficient enough and universal within the group, therefore the difference between the “male” and “female” brain can be easily tracked in structure and function, making possible to assume that there are different kinds of gendered brains.
Halbert argues that even though there are certain differences between brain features of men and women on the group level, the individual differences are substantially more pronounced, making it impossible to claim the group traits of a gendered brain.
The innatist assumptions put to a default the idea that sex differences in the brain structure and functions, observed within adolescents and adults, exist because of innate gendered features, ignoring the possibility of developmental factors influencing the matter.
This argument is debunked by neurofeminists, claiming that the research never controls the neuroplasticity factors and the gendered environmental input. The innatism point of view seems especially weak considering the existence of developmental disorders, such as ASD (autistic spectrum disorder), ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder), Tourette Syndrome, etc, which develop in the early life stages and cannot (yet) be predicted prenatally. We shall look into this closer, however, in the next section of this essay.
The last neurosexist ideological assumption, according to Halbert is neurocentrism, the idea that mental states and the associated behaviors can be explained only by studying brain structures and processes.
However, this claim does not stand up to criticism, since Einstein’s research (2012) showed how female genital cutting (practiced in some cultures) affects the functioning of the whole nervous system. Thus, we can see that brain functioning visualizations may be affected by different factors, making it shortsighted to assign the utter importance only to the brain wiring.
Sex difference importance
Notwithstanding the approach of not assigning value and meaning to structural and functional sex differences of the brain, neurofeminist ideas have been misunderstood and inverted with the result of the exclusion of female participants from studies, operating under the premise that sex difference is non-existent or not important (Chen et al, 2017). Due to such crucial misunderstanding many neuroscientists still only study male rodents, even to research disorders that tend to affect mostly women (i.e. post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, eating disorders, etc).
Similar issue exists in the studies on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), that is diagnosed four times more often in boys, than in girls, which supposedly means that boys are more prone to it. However, the inclusion of females from the studies leads to under- or later diagnosis, affecting undiagnosed women’s lives is crucial ways, leading to less accommodations, less self-understanding, identity crises, and more comorbid conditions. Recent studies show that girls diagnosed with ASD express more intellectual and behavioral problems compared to their male counterparts, suggesting that girls may be less likely diagnosed in the absence of such problems. Scientists may also operate under a male-biased definition of autism, which results in biased assessment methods and further under diagnosis of girls with ASD.
Most structural brain differences in boys and girls with ASD also disappear in adulthood. Nevertheless, since women with autism also exhibit increased white matter density in fibers of certain brain areas, differences between and within sex are still heightened in some aspects of white matter density and integrity, even for adults with autism. Recent studies imply that despite attenuation of many sex differences, some atypical sexual dimorphism in the brain and neuroanatomical differences within sex still exist in men and women with autism, which makes it important to study them separately.
Considering neurofeminist criticism that innatist assumptions do not consider the role of society on developing behaviors as well as disorders, we would like to note the importance of considering the influence of the external world in shaping children with ASD brain architecture. Confounding variables including gender socialization (i.e. parental care and exposure to certain toys) sculpt the brain from infancy and may play a powerful role in shaping sex differences in ASD behavior.
There is, however, sex difference in people with ASD even on genetic level (Chen et al, 2017). The Met Receptor Tyrosine (MET) kinase gene, which is expressed in the occipital, temporal, and parietal cortices (responsible for processing social information in humans) appears in different ways in men and women with ASD.
Thus, the exclusion of gender variable in research would lead to more harm to already struggling with various disorders people, especially women. Therefore, neurosciences should not ignore sex differences during research, but rather adopt an even more intersectional approach.
Coined by Kimberle Crenshaw (1990), the idea intersectionality claims that sex/gender cannot be viewed as the only oppression constituting structure, but should be considered alongside other discriminatory systems. So far, gender studies as well as psychological research have largely considered intersecting identities of participants, but neuroscience has been falling behind. Duchesne and Kaiser (2021) investigate the possibilities of implementing intersectionality as a conceptual framework in neuroscientific research, regarding three themes that have been occurring in respective spheres of psychological studies.
- Health inequality
Various psychological research has been conducted in order to study the complex social structures, influencing social groups, and the effect they produce on group members’ health. For example, research shows that all identity intersections of South-Asian women with HIV in Canada increase their health vulnerability. Similarly, history of incarceration increases HIV-risks for Black sexual minority men. Unlike “flattened intersectionality” research, that treats social categories as fixed determinants, the aforementioned research exposes the correlation between oppressive social structures and gaining more minority identities for the already oppressed.
Neuroscientific research may also consider social context, but tends to isolate group membership, focusing only on the socio-economical status of the participants. There is, however, one study that links racial discrimination and childhood socioeconomic status to structural brain differences and learning performance.
To advance neuroscientific research, sex/gender shouldn’t be considered as the major factor of influence on the brain development, but be viewed in correspondence with other contextual social factors.
- Intersecting identities processing
Psychological research investigates how discrimination may be constituted by information-processing related to different social categories. There have been studies looking into the perceived attraction and femininity/masculinity of various faces, showing that white women are perceived as the most attractive ones, both Black men and women looking more “masculine” then their white counterparts, showing the sexual invisibility of Black women as attractive subjects, highlighting socio-structural power dynamics.
In neurosciences there has been one intersectional study, investigating neural processes of face recognition of different sex/genders and races. The results showed the intertwined perception of Black faces as disproportionally angry ones and female faces as disproportionally happy ones both because of people’s personal stereotypes and independent neural activity.
- Epistemological benefits
This psychological research uses intersectionality to interrogate epistemology — intersectionality challenges the notion of psychological norms in favor of types of inquiry oriented toward diverse participants’ experiences, constituted by their identities. Currently, there are suggestions to include participants in formulating the research questions and methodology, requiring for the researcher to consider which biased assumptions they may make and how to avoid them in advance. Critical intersectionality research, however, is mainly excluded from mainstream specialized journals, considered being too narrow and of no interest to scientific community.
Considering neurosciences, Weng et al. (2020) propose that research should favor analytical approaches to understanding the brain that “accommodate neural diversity”, since individual biologies are the product of contextualized experiences. The authors recommend using multi-voxel pattern analysis (MVPA), that uses machine learning to derive brain activity patterns predictive of mental states and does not require “normalization” of brain data and focuses on the changes of brain activity patterns within the individual. However, although MVPA better accommodates the inclusion of “non-normal” brains, it is not necessarily “intersectional”, since it cannot be used without the researcher’s consideration of socio-structural power dynamics.
For a long time neuroscientific research has been conducted under neurosexist assumptions and the results were delivered through the according lens. Neurofeminists, however, offer a different perspective. They do not call for exclusion of investigating sex differences in human brain, but rather suggest considering a more intersectional approach, leading to a broader scope of research questions, development of innovative methodology, inclusion of participants into question formulation, and critical assessments of underlying biases, affecting the research processes as well as the result interpretation.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2003). The Essential Difference: men, women and the extreme male brain. Penguin, Allen Lane/Basic Books.
Chen, C., Van Horn, J. D., & GENDAAR Research Consortium (2017). Developmental neurogenetics and multimodal neuroimaging of sex differences in autism. Brain imaging and behavior, 11 (1), 38–61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11682-015-9504-3
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