Dr. Lise Eliot: Beware the myths of gender brain differences

Sex differences in babies are real. But any differences in how their brains operate are much more subtle than popular culture would have you believe. Indeed, early learning and practice play a much greater role in all gender gaps. That was the core message delivered by Dr. Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and author, in her public lecture Feb. 1, at the Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage.

Dr. Eliot debunked quite a few popular beliefs as myth:

  • Referring to the wildly popular 1990s book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, she said the truth is closer to “men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.”
  • There is no such thing as a male brain or a female brain.
  • There’s no good scientific evidence for the growing notion that boys and girls learn differently.

Most gender differences result from early experience and socialization

Actual gender differences at birth stem from a prenatal surge of hormones that bias – not determine – for toy preferences, sexual orientation, and activity level, Dr. Eliot said. Most of the gender differences that emerge in children are the result of early experiences. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, parents and socialization encourage children to conform to gender stereotypes.

Dr. Eliot’s talk touched on themes from her latest book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It. Dr. Eliot is associate professor of Neuroscience at Chicago Medical School, Rosalind Franklin University. In addition to teaching and writing, she lectures widely on children’s brain and mental development.

“Boys and girls grow up in different cultures,” she said. They’re socialized to magnify some circuits and depress others. “We need to encourage children to use all their circuits.” Dr. Eliot said there’s much that parents and teachers can do to foster that. Specific suggestions for both girls and boys appear here.

For girls, especially (but boys, too):

  • Teach spatial skills, such as building, maps, and tools
  • Encourage physical challenges and sports
  • Defuse stereotypes in math and science
  • Promote leadership in mixed-sex settings
  • Foster positive risk-taking and competition
  • Reward critical thinking over compliance
  • Teach salary negotiation and that “math = money” (i.e. jobs that entail math pay better)
  • Require classes in computer programming

For boys, especially (but girls, too):

  • Provide more physical breaks and outdoor play
  • Offer lots of books and one-on-one dialogue • Prepare for writing with “mark-making”
  • Promote empathy and caring through plant and pet care
  • Give opportunities for non-writing, fine motor practice
  • Teach typing and dictation, to divorce writing from composition
  • Train executive skills, such as self-control and organization
  • Encourage non-sports extracurricular activities

The baby brain is incredibly sensitive to early experience; every experience changes the structure of the brain, which is why a “good, nurturing interactive environment is crucial” to a child’s healthy development, she said. “What infants need is not stimulation, but interaction. The best learning happens in the context of relationships.”

Dr. Eliot’s Alaska visit

During her three-day visit to Alaska, Dr. Eliot also spoke with legislators and at a luncheon hosted by First Lady Sandy Parnell, delivered a keynote speech at the Anchorage AEYC Early Childhood Conference, and conducted a workshop for parents.

Dr. Eliot’s visit was organized by Best Beginnings with support from NEA-Alaska and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Additional support for the public lecture was provided by Anchorage Public Library, UAA College of Education, and UAA Honors College.

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