The Gay Brain: On Love and Science

A lot of controversy and blogging about the gay brain of late. Here’s the Savic and Lindstrom paper that got the fray started, with Mind Hacks’ accompanying coverage on the Return of the Gay Brain.

Shortly afterwards, Vaughan proposed “hard wired” as one of the worst psychobabble terms. For me, the fixation on biological determinism is the larger, and worse, cultural concept behind that. So I propose leaving behind biological claims for identity. It just gives us claptrap like the opening lines from the New Scientist news report, “Brain scans have provided the most compelling evidence yet that being gay or straight is a biologically fixed trait.”

Compelling evidence? While there is interesting work on biology and sexuality (the LA Times covers some of it), there is plenty to doubt about the present work, as the Neurocritic points out quite well here and here. This sort of work represents bad brain science: reported claims overreaching the evidence, an often notable lack of comparative work and appropriate controls, little longitudinal analysis, and on and on.

The worst thing about it? The science, whatever it turns out to be, cannot take us from is to ought.

To add my two anthropological cents, human sexuality is varied. Trying to shoehorn sexuality into one socially and politically charged box just does not work well from an anthropological point of view. As one example, men in some cultures go through different life stages, and in some of those stages homosexuality is the normal way of being, whereas at other times heterosexual relations are the norm. To speak personally, I’ve known people who have had an array of partners in their lives, individually recreating what cultures like the Etoro have shown us ethnographically.

On the neuroplasticity and experience/behavior side, this type of approach generally leaves out something every consenting adult knows. Sex matters! The experience of a sexual encounter helps shape our desires, our pleasures, our associations.

But there is something that matters more to me, and most of the people I know, than sex. LOVE. All this debate about cerebral asymmetries and biological determinism misses the human point. Love matters.

Who cares whether sex between whatever combination of men and women is or is not natural? Love makes a much bigger difference in people’s lives. Love between two committed partners, love of a parent for a child, love of family and friend and groups finding common bond.

Love holds us together, whereas the debates over how gay our brains may or may not be aims to divide us, to heighten identity politics at the expense of those experiences and behaviors whose impact lasts longer. We sacrifice the strength of intimacy to proclaim the supposed facts of science.

There are those who will say that knowing the nature of the problem (how easy to slide from one sense of the problem to another) will help us make better determinations about what to do, that more information will lead to better decisions. Or that being able to claim the mantle of biologically innate will help in the fight against the other side.

I would counter that these sorts of assertions cut entirely against the grain of the society we have built, whether that is a liberal vision of equality before the law or a conservative vision that government should not dictate people’s private choices. But that vision gets sacrificed at the altar of proclamations of moral superiority and the exercise of vindictive power.

Science, with its claims of facts and evidence, steps so easily into that arena, declaring this and that truth. In doing that, the scientists are forgetting what matters, both about science and about human experience.

College Drinking: Battle of the Sexes?

By: Carolyn, Andrew, Brandon, and Sarah

Drunk- this five letter word has many connotations, ranging in extremes from positive memories to negative stigmas. For men and women, it is one word that has different meanings, from the number of drinks it takes to get drunk to the behaviors men and women are expected to exhibit while drinking. For college women and men in particular, binge drinking is an area in which they relate quite distinctly with alcohol. Gender norms, rituals and relations often lead to, and perpetuate, binge drinking on campuses nationwide.

Many aspects of college drinking are unique. Tailgating is one of them. Where else can you find people drinking excessive amounts of alcohol early in the morning? At big football schools, tailgating facilitates the social learning of binge drinking as a normal and acceptable behavior. The ritualized drinking associated with tailgating is often the first place where students are introduced to binge drinking. It also sets a precedent of drinking enough alcohol to get drunk and stay drunk for an extended period of time.

In the fall, people tailgate every weekend before football games. In the ritual of tailgating, binge drinking as a socially learned experience is evidenced by the fact that students learn to drink from the very alumni whom they are taught to respect and admire. Across the nation, students only need to leave their dorms to encounter the alumni who have been drinking since early morning. Since this is often a student’s first exposure to binge drinking, students may initially be shocked to find huge crowds of people drinking heavily in parking lots and around campus. The immersion in the football culture, which often depends upon tailgates, will soon numb any hesitation or doubts the student may have.

Tailgating perpetuates binge drinking among the general student population, but its significance varies based on gender. During a typical night out, a college student may consume four or five drinks to “pregame” before the actual party has even started. Many students do not realize that this qualifies as binge drinking, and that it impacts women and men differently.

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Antidepressants suppress identity?

Another interesting one from The New York Times, Who Are We? Coming of Age on Antidepressants, by Dr. Richard A. Friedman; I found this one really well done, asking more questions than it answers, but thought-provoking.

The introduction to the article lays out the central existential question posed by long-term treatment with anti-depressants, especially for patients who started on their regimens when very young:

“I’ve grown up on medication,” my patient Julie told me recently. “I don’t have a sense of who I really am without it.”
At 31, she had been on one antidepressant or another nearly continuously since she was 14. There was little question that she had very serious depression and had survived several suicide attempts. In fact, she credited the medication with saving her life.
But now she was raising an equally fundamental question: how the drugs might have affected her psychological development and core identity.

As Friedman points out, the medical testing for these pharmaceuticals doesn’t include long-term research anywhere close to the lengths of time that people are actually spending on the drugs: the longest maintenance study — done on Effexor — lasted two years.

But the more subtle issues that Friedman raises, as far as I’m concerned, are the questions of identity that are clouded by long-term anti-depressant use. He discusses one woman who was concerned about her ‘low sex drive’ and pressure from her boyfriend to have sex after eight years on libido-reducing Zoloft: ‘She had understandably mistaken the side effect of the drug for her “normal” sexual desire and was shocked when I explained it: “And I thought it was just me!”’ I can’t tell from the way Friedman writes this how he feels about the idea that an individual has a ‘normal’ sex drive, something that might exist ‘prior to’ or ‘independent of’ any outside influences, whether that influence be an anti-depressant or a particular life event or the effects of interpersonal dynamics with a partner.

The idea that the ‘anti-depressed’ state might become ‘normal,’ both in the medical sense that intervention seeks to create this state and in the sense that a patient spends so much time in the drug-influenced state that it becomes a kind of reference, suggests yet another way that cultural expectations might become biological ‘nature.’

Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis

I’m too busy to be blogging right now; I’m putting in an application for academic promotion, and like much else in academe, that means reams of paper must be offered up to the cruel, fickle gods of bureaucracy. But this example of the reporting on brain imaging research, drawn to my attention by Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon’s, Using 15 college age boys and some reactionary reporting, we are able to blame the coming depression on boobage, couldn’t pass by without comment. Thank YOU Amanda for getting me worked up enough that I won’t need a morning cup of coffee to get through several hours working on my promotion application, if I can just get back to that. (Thanks also to Echidne of the Snakes.)

The article which inspired this train of commentary is ‘Sex and financial risk linked in brain,’ by Seth Borenstein, who probably needs some sort of award for this piece. I’ll let you decide:

A new brain-scan study may help explain what’s going on in the minds of financial titans when they take risky monetary gambles — sex. When young men were shown erotic pictures, they were more likely to make a larger financial gamble than if they were shown a picture of something scary, such a snake, or something neutral, such as a stapler, university researchers reported. The arousing pictures lit up the same part of the brain that lights up when financial risks are taken.

“You have a need in an evolutionary sense for both money and women. They trigger the same brain area,” said Camelia Kuhnen, a Northwestern University finance professor who conducted the study with a Stanford University psychologist.

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Neurosexism, size dimorphism and not-so-‘hard-wiring’

Cordelia Fine has a great short piece, Will Working Mothers’ Brains Explode? The Popular New Genre of Neurosexism, on the recent spate of work about the ‘female brain.’ In the article (which is short but worth reading, including for the other material she links to), she explores ‘several recent popular and influential books arguing for fundamental and “hard-wired” differences in male and female psychology.’ In her discussion, she doesn’t so much focus on the research itself but on the question, ‘What accounts for the success and appeal of the new field of neurosexism?’ I’m going to take this posting as a license to range all over the place on the ‘biology’ of sex differences, not just in the brain, as a way of thinking more about how culture and biology become inextricably entangled even in basic sexual differences, like say body size.

One explanation for neurosexim, according to Fine, is that ‘Most lay readers, of course, have neither the background nor the resources to question the many inaccurate and misleading claims made about gender differences in the brain,’ a discussion that we’ve already had on Neuroanthropology (both here and here). I especially like a quote that Fine borrows from Mark Liberman: ‘misleading appeals to the authority of “brain research” have become the modern equivalent of out-of-context scriptural fragments’ (originally on Language Log).

Fine presents the example: ‘The back cover of The Female Brain offers to explain why “a man can’t seem to spot an emotion unless someone cries or threatens bodily harm”. Were we to pick up a different sort of book that made an equally unusual sort of claim (a guide to pets, say, which promised to explain why cats can’t climb trees), we would immediately put it down and go in search of a more reliable text.’ It’s a great point; so much of our experience points to myriad exceptions to these neurosexist rules, and yet many of us don’t throw the books out immediately. Odd…

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