Women on tests update: response to stress

A while ago, I posted an overly-long discussion of recent research on the ‘math gap’ between boys and girls on standardized testing (Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1). That posting discussed several studies published in Science that have shown the gap in average math scores between boys and girls is not set in stone. In one paper, an increase in the test pool brought on by the No Child Left Behind program, with mandatory universal tests instead of exams only for those wishing to go to college, caused the gap in average scores to disappear; in the other paper, a decrease in the ‘math gap’ was found to correlate with other measures of greater gender equality in European states.

As I pointed out in the previous post, however, many commentators suggest that it is not the gap in average test scores that really matters; rather, these critics argue that the different variance in boys’ and girls’ scores explains the disproportionate number of boys who produce exceptional scores (as well as exceptionally bad scores), and thus the marked gap of men and women in PhD math programs, in prestigious prizes for physics and related subjects, and in related fields like engineering. In the earlier post, I argued that even if this greater variance showed up reliably across all testing populations, what exactly was being illuminated was still not clear; that is, many other explanations–other than that men had better ‘math modules’ in their brains, or greater ‘innate’ mathematics ability, or something like that–could explain even very stable differences in math performance. At the time I suggested a number of other possibilities, such as sex differences in stress response during testing, as other possible explanations for even a universal ‘math gap’ (which still had to contend with studies like the two in Science which severely undermined the assertion of universality).

As if on cue, I stumbled upon a video and accompanying article in Science Daily on differences in stress responses among men and women: Neuroscientists Find That Men And Women Respond Differently To Stress (but don’t click on that link — keep reading!). Stress is a good candidate to explain a test-taking gap because the observable physiological processes offer abundant evidence that men and women don’t respond to stress in exactly the same way (although there are underlying commonalities). For example, stress causes different diseases in men and women, and some long-term psychological disorders that demonstrate sex-linked disparities seem to emerge from stress.

Unlike the ‘black box’ explanation that boys and simply better at math or evidence greater variability in innate ability, with no observable neural correlate or plausible explanatory mechanism, in variation in stress response we have a clear candidate for male-female difference that plausibly affects their performance and even physiology (for example, in different stress-related diseases).
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Culture on the Teen Brain

Harvard Magazine has a short piece this month on the work of neurologists Frances Jensen and David Urion to popularize information about the “teen brain” to audiences. As Jensen says, “This is the first generation of teenagers that has access to this information, and they need to understand some of their vulnerabilities.”

That information? That, given the way their brain is maturing (both fast-growing synapses and other sections relatively unconnected), adolescents are more “easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior.” As expected, there follows a typical line of parental angst: the sexes are different, drugs harm brains, kids need to sleep and get exercise, they are suffering from sensory overload from all the new technology. By implication, it is all due to being in “this paradoxical period in brain development.”

Certainly there are some intriguing results about brain development in adolescent related to differential brain maturation, developmental plasticity, and the like. Some early research based on longitudinal research is summarized here in an NIMH press release, which concludes in better fashion: “the teenage brain is a very complicated and dynamic arena, one that is not easily understood,” whether for parents or for researchers. But as I covered earlier in a post on emotion and decision making, teenagers can actually be seen as rather good decision makers, just focused on differential goals and contexts than most adults.

And come on, teenagers are overwhelmed by information and multitasking in today’s “brave new world”? I wish I had half the skills that my incoming freshmen display in this arena-I’m the one who doesn’t quite know how to handle the sensory overload…

Another graphic accompanies the Harvard article (only in the pdf though), an illustration by Leslie Cober-Gentry. For me, it shows the enormous gap between the brain imaging graphic and this more cultural graphic. As with all imaging research, there can only be correlations between level of activity and a particular task at hand. But that equation leaves out all the other important correlations that exists between, say, being impulsive and a particular environmental context. The juxtaposition of the two images capture perfectly what Urion and Jensen do, project our everyday life and concerns onto our newest explanatory cause-the brain.

Foxy Evolution

Here’s a great video that shows how selection can work its effects–in this case artificial selection, demonstrated through the work of the Russian Dmitri Belyaev and his tame silver foxes. Still, what I find most striking about this video is the analogy to ourselves.

Jim Rilling, a neuroanthropologist at Emory, once commented to me that humans are wired to cooperate (in his latest work, he’s doing neuro-imaging on what happens when people don’t reciprocate, having researched the neural bases of cooperation earlier). The example Jim used has stuck with me ever since. Imagine 50 chimpanzees trying to sit down and watch an introductory lecture together. Pandemonium with those chimps. For us, it’s the most mundane sort of thing. People do it everyday around the world.

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Wednesday Round Up #26


Brandon Keim, Culture Shapes How People See Faces
New research on East Asian/Western contrast in facial perception using eye tracking. Has this great graphic! And includes this important quote: “We tested some Chinese who had been in Glasgow for three or four years, and you see a clear difference between them and those who just arrived,” he said. “That really demonstrates that it’s not genetic. It’s experience.”
For more detail on the study, see Ed Yong’s piece “Westerners Focus on the Eyes, East Asians on the Nose

LL Wynn & Nikki Kuper, Annotated Bibliography on HTS, Minerva and PRISP
A comprehensive listing of resources on the US Army’s Human Terrain Systems and other efforts to engage social science (and in many minds, subvert and corrupt it). Erkan Saka offers some more links, as well as other interesting anthro stuff, in one of his round-ups.

Somatosphere, Web Gleanings 2
Another round up from the new med anthro blog – quite a collection!

Disparate, Enthused Tech
Slideshow and blog post on enthusiasm in learning, especially through technology. Another Anthro Blog provides some enthusiastic reaction.

Antropologi, Open Access: New Alliances Threaten the American Anthropological Association
Did the AAA make the wrong choice in hiding its online publications away?

Madeleine Coorey, Prehistoric Giant Animals Killed by Man, Not Climate: Study
In Tasmania, the climate was stable so recently arrived humans become the main suspects in the disappearance of giant kangaroos

Roger Cohen, News Good Enough to Be Buried
Nice op-ed: “In my lifetime, conditions have grown immeasurably better, freer and more prosperous for a majority of humanity, yet hand-wringing about the miserable remains the reflex mode for most coverage of planet earth.”

Randolph Schmid, Monkeys Reward Friends and Relatives
Better to give and receive rather than just give—the importance of building relationships and reciprocity


Arthur Shapiro, 100th Anniversary of “A New Visual Illusion of Direction”
Another great one from Illusion Sciences—clicking on the red lines really made the difference! And we get plenty of added intellectual background too!

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