December 10, 2006

"Are you concerned that you are rehabilitating outdated gender stereotypes that portray women as chatterboxes ruled by female hormones?"

Deborah Solomon asks Louann Brizendine -- the "Female Brain" author. Answer:
A stereotype always has an aspect of truth to it, or it wouldn’t be a stereotype. I am talking about the biological basis behind behaviors that we all know about.

Were there any research findings you were reluctant to include in your book because they could be used to bolster sexist thinking?

Any of this could be taken badly. I worried, for instance, that stuff about pregnancy and the mommy brain could be taken to mean that mothers shouldn’t go to work. The brain shrinks 8 percent during pregnancy and does not return to its former size until six months postpartum....

If women have superior verbal skills, why have they been subservient to men in almost all societies?

Because of pregnancy. Before birth control, in the 1700s and 1800s, middle-class women were pregnant between 17 and 22 times in their lifetimes. All these eons upon eons, while Socrates and all these guys were sitting around thinking up solutions to problems, women were feeding hungry mouths and wiping smelly behinds.
It's not the shrunken brain, you know, it's the childcare. But you will have a shrunken brain.

ADDED: Linguist Mark Liberman has been very critical of Ms. Brizendine.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

As everyone now knows that childcare is a dangerous occupation best left to experts (see discussion of FASBOS below), the only proper solution to this problem is regulation by the state, combining breeding licenses with strict enforcement so that only those with brains sufficiently large enough to suffer shrinkage without discernable effect engage in this important activity.

michael a litscher said...

Outdated gender stereotypes that portray women as chatterboxes?

Uh, right. Any of you male cell phone users taken a peek at your significant other's cell phone bill lately? If you haven't, be sure to catch your chin on it's descent towards the floor when you do. It aint no stereotype.

Anonymous said...

Over at Language Log, this book has been discussed repeatedly, especially the unsupported claim that women talk nearly 3 times as much as men. Most research data shows either men talking slightly more or no significant difference in the amount of communication done. I remember Ann mentioned the discussions at Language Log before, but I think they need repeating:
http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/moveabletype/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=2&search=Brizendine

Also, I seriously cringed when I read Brizendine's ridiculous comment about placebos being cruel as some sort of excuse to not do clinical research herself (while she mostly cites studies that don't use a placebo). Before I read this interview, I thought she was just a misguided psychologist who was swayed by non-scientific anecdotes, but it looks like disdain for science is more of a theme than an anomaly.

bearing said...

I'd like to see her source for that "17 to 22 times" thing. Sounds like she's got them having one baby right after another.

Maybe if the middle-class women were hiring wet-nurses? I wouldn't rule that out.

But then, they wouldn't be feeding the hungry mouths and wiping the butts.

Elizabeth said...

Bearing, I'd like to see more on that figure, too, but keep in mind, she's talking about pregnancies, not births.

Garage Mahal said...

They needed a study to find out women have smaller brains, and talk too much?

reader_iam said...

Sort of an odd number, though not so much if we're talking pregnancies. Well, but then again...didn't a lot of women die prematurely due to childbirth or complications thereof? Which could mean a significant proportion of their short lives was spent on raising their own kids (following childhoods often spent helping with younger siblings etc.), but militates against that being the average number of pregnancies, doesn't it? Interesting question.

This sort of speculation always makes me think of my maternal great-grandmother, pregnant 22 times (as the family lore has it), who raised just 12 children all the way to adulthood, here and in the Old Country. My mother once described her as the most nervous, distracted person she ever met.

No wonder.

chickenlittle said...

I happen to have a fairly detailed geneology. My great, great, great grandmother helped populate Wisconsin, giving birth to 17 children, starting at age 18. For the first 20 years of child bearing, she appears to have had a baby every 16 months or so. The last 3 were about 2 years apart. I think to have hit 23, a woman would have to have started much younger than 18

Gahrie said...

Chickenlittle:

1) It was pregnancies, not neccessarily live births.

2) Many women did indeed start prior to the age of 18. It was not uncommon for fourteen year olds to be married.

reader_iam said...

My GG had her first at around 14 and her last--my grandmother, born 1901--in her 40s. Given nursing, sounds typical.

reader_iam said...

Am I the only one who really dislikes the term "chatterbox"? Espeically in such close proximity to the word "hormones"?

vh: oxhxyn

Gahrie said...

reader_iam:

Oh stop being so hysterical!


:}

Truly said...

I recently read a biography of Cotton Mather that describes Boston during Mather's later years. One of the vignettes is of a woman who was pregnant with #19 when she hanged herself.

My great-grandfather was one of 13 surviving kids. I think this was probably pretty common in the older, agragrian generation.

Simon said...

Garage Mahal said...
"They needed a study to find out women have smaller brains, and talk too much?"

My, what an outstandingly liberal comment, Garage. You're a credit to your party.

knoxgirl said...

In my experience, women--in general-- do indeed talk more. Sometimes a lot more. But so what? I'd also say that in general, men can be a bit too uncommunicative. Neither is better or worse than the other.

altoids1306 said...

Also, I seriously cringed when I read Brizendine's ridiculous comment about placebos being cruel as some sort of excuse to not do clinical research herself (while she mostly cites studies that don't use a placebo).

She clearly states that she recognizes the importance of blind studies, but she would prefer not to do it herself. That's perfectly reasonable. (One can appreciate the importance of firefighting without being a firefighter.)

Before I read this interview, I thought she was just a misguided psychologist who was swayed by non-scientific anecdotes, but it looks like disdain for science is more of a theme than an anomaly.

UCSF has one of the best, if not the best, research medical institutions in the country. I know nothing of the author, or her book, but if she's a professor of neuropsychiatry at UCSF, I'll take her words at face value.

reader_iam said...

OK, Gahrie (lol): Maybe I was being too subtle and trying not to be sort of vulgar.

It's not that I'm offended,it's that I dislike it, as I said...because chatterbox next to "hormones" keeps making me think of another variation on the word "box."

And so on from there. And I'd just rather not go there, mentally, or to all the one-liners which keep popping, unbidden (and basically unapproved of), into my mind.

Use your imagination.

Cedarford said...

The more interesting observation of Althouse is not the "chatterbox" one. It is intuitively obvious that women are simply geared to talk more than men - recent studies showing 3X more verbal activity than men and pleasure centers of the female brain being activated by the hearing or dispensing of chatter just follow 6,000 years of recorded behavior observation of the phenomena.

No, the more interesting phenomenon is the one we forgot that forged our religion and war and social ordering.

High child mortality. High numbers of pregnacies.

It didn't just affect woman's ability to have a career instead of a large family, but ordered our whole world perception.

IMO, 17-22 may be on the high end, but anyone visiting a colonial cemetery for the well-off quickly notices the piles of small tombstones, some simply stated "Child of Ebenezer and Polly Ann Johnson" or so on. The poor simply buried without marker. In some land-short areas of Europe, the body was allowed to decay in soil then dug up, bones put in ossuaries, and a new body rested in dirt to decay. When there is more life, more life dying unexpectedly, life is cheaper and the death of so many not as important.

How did Europeans send so many young men to mass slaughter in war or afford the Bolshevik Democide? 1st Industrialization then lowering child mortality gave them surplus people. They could afford to. Not so much now, with only the 0-2 children in a European family all but guaranteed to reach age 75..not much desire to risk them exists.

Part of the reason Christianity is dying is that people are living.

And living far more securely.

Those who do embrace Christianity have sects that think profoundly different about "precious fetuses" and early child deaths or stillborns than Christians for 2 millenia did. Look at the colonial cemeteries or diaries that record and dispense with another failed pregnancy or lost infant in one line. Remarkably unsentimental, they were.

Even later deaths were not wrapped in endless grief, endless indulgence - no Cindy Sheehans running around thinking their grief is some sort of entitlement. Mourning was brief, sometimes intense, but people were expected to return to tasks very quickly except "ladies of leisure with no tasks".

And nothing existed like the "cult" of the Divine zygote where new sects of Christianity have proclaimed that a fetus at any stage is just as much a person, with a full soul, and just as entitled to all legal rights as an adult. For most of the span of Christianity this would have been laughed off by the devout as craziness.

So we have the Fundie worshippers of fetuses in petri dishes. Childless women mourning and non-functional for months or years over a dead dog. The reproductive choice related Democide of caucasians, asians now underway. The explosion in divorce.

Dozens of other fundamental changes in human society starting in the last two centuries.

All centering around that 17-22 pregancies (or 10-15) or whatever. From that being the past, and 0-2 the present, all the great changes have ensued...

Mortimer Brezny said...

Has anyone noticed that the leap from one side of the comma splice to the other in this question is outright crazy: "If women have superior verbal skills, why have they been subservient to men in almost all societies?"

Assuming its truth for the sake of argument, what do superior verbal skills have to do with escaping subservience? There are a lot of dissident writers who end up political prisoners. And rarely was it the case that a troubador was a king.

Is Pete Sampras a brilliant orator? Does George W. Bush say "nucular"? Successful actors are rich, persuasive, appealing, charismatic, and beloved, and other people write their lines.

In what world do superior verbal skills guarantee financial success, political power, physical prowess, or knowing the right people?

Because it isn't ours.

Anonymous said...

Cedarford: Part of the reason Christianity is dying is that people are living.

Wherever did you get the idea that Christianity is dying? It may be all but defunct in Europe, but in the rest of the world it is thriving, more than making up for the losses on the European continent.

And as for the rest of your post, re the "holy zygote", etc, being laughable concepts to early Christians: wrong, again. Early Christians had a perception of "ensoulment" that roughly coincided with "quickening", the time when the mother first felt the child's movements in the womb. This idea was based on the primitive understanding of human reproduction at the time; the existence of human ova remained unknown for a long period after the sperm were identified. If early Christians had understood human reproduction the way we now do, they would've agreed with the ideas you regard as ridiculous.

Stereotypes, like cliches, persist because they have some truth to them. I know I talk a lot, especially to friends and family I never see because we live so far apart. But I also know women who aren't so chatty... the danger with stereotypes is that people use them to classify others without stopping to consider who may or may not fit it.

AJ Lynch said...

The late Sonny Liston, the great boxer, whose loss to Cassius Clay made Muhammed Ali a legend, would be about 70-75 years of age today.

He was one of 25 kids and he was said to be unsure of how old he was. I believe Liston was born and raised in the south. Imagine how much talking his mother did in raising 25 kids! Maybe being talkative is just a bio-occupational hazard for a woman.

reader_iam said...

one of 25 kids

Oh, my. That's TWO baseball starting line-ups, plus three on the bench for each, and an ump.

Wow.

downtownlad said...

Even if the stereotype about women being chatterboxes is true (which I think it is) - how is that a hinderance in today's information age society? Verbal skills are absolutely key - and I see many women pulling ahead in the corporate ranks because their communication skills are superb.

Robert said...

Don't forget you'll need coaches for each team.

reader_iam said...

Wouldn't those roles be filled by the parents (mom, dad, or, parental equivalents)? With Cousin Whoever, taking the role of third-base coach (etc.)?

Al Maviva said...

I don't know about the big brain/small brain thing.

I do know that my father, a brilliant man of few spoken (but many written and read words) used to ocasionally remind me, "When your mouth is running, your brain stops working."

That might explain some things.

Anonymous said...

Shane, 1:23 pm: "Over at Language Log, this book has been discussed repeatedly, especially the unsupported claim that women talk nearly 3 times as much as men. Most research data shows either men talking slightly more or no significant difference in the amount of communication done. I remember Ann mentioned the discussions at Language Log before, but I think they need repeating: [Link]"

Cedarford, 5:13 pm: "t is intuitively obvious that women are simply geared to talk more than men - recent studies showing 3X more verbal activity than men[...]"


Shane, though I admire your patient devotion to truth and perseverance in reposting this fact-checking link, I don't think people are attracted to this topic because they have any serious interest in accurate measures of raw blather rates. The fact that logorrhea is discussed in terms of "chatterboxes" rather than bloviators or gas-baggers tells you something right off.

(Though to be charitable to Cedarford, from his context he may be referring to activity recorded by brain scans, and not to the "3X" factoid relayed by Brizendine that was pulled out of someone's ass somewhere along the chain of reference.)

altoid1306: "I know nothing of the author, or her book, but if she's a professor of neuropsychiatry at UCSF, I'll take her words at face value."

What a tool.

Fitz said...

“And nothing existed like the "cult" of the Divine zygote where new sects of Christianity have proclaimed that a fetus at any stage is just as much a person, with a full soul, and just as entitled to all legal rights as an adult. For most of the span of Christianity this would have been laughed off by the devout as craziness.”

Except the cult of the divine zygote doesn’t believe this today. The arguments are simply not concerned with issues of “insoulment” but rather the scientifically correct origins of human life.

As far as the devout are concerned- well if the apostles and early Christians werent “devout” then who was? As a simple matter of history the Didache referenced both infanticide & abortion as intrinsic evils, and the church has always consistently held so.

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html

Now, if the point is that life was cheap through out most of human history – then point made. No need however to misrepresent consistent moral teaching and understanding. Life remains cheap today (even cheaper) – rather than women bearing children that died in infancy, sexual license and convenience is enough to compel their disposal in vitro.


As for women being chatterboxes, I find it both accurate and endearing.

Revenant said...

Wherever did you get the idea that Christianity is dying? It may be all but defunct in Europe, but in the rest of the world it is thriving, more than making up for the losses on the European continent

The percentage of Americans that identify as Christian has also been declining over time.

Overall, Christianity is rapidly losing ground in the developed world, but gaining converts in the third world. Overall numbers of Christians, as a percentage of world population, are thus remaining relatively constant, although the wealth, longevity, and education level of the average Christian are declining.

The only religion that is really "thriving", at an international level, is Islam.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Moira. I guess my mistake in formatting the link resulted in the post's point getting ignored by some.

I didn't originally mean to be as harsh as I sounded in my earlier comment towards Dr. Brizendine, but I just think that the comment about placebos was a terrible excuse to not do all research (it would only be a passable excuse if she was saying that she didn't do drug research), especially from faculty at "one of the best, if not the best, research medical institutions in the country."

Ann, thanks for posting to Mark Liberman's most recent post on the issue, which summarizes the robust criticism against one of the claims Brizendine's book.