What we’re reading: on brain sex, education, and American innocence

There’s no such thing as a ‘male brain’ or ‘female brain,’ and scientists have the scans to prove it, by Karen Kaplan

Do you have a male brain or a female brain? The answer, according to science, is no.

If you didn’t expect this to be a yes-or-no question, you’re not alone. Male brains do seem to be built differently than female brains. An analysis of more than 100 studies found that the volume of a man’s brain is 8% to 13% greater than the volume of a woman’s brain, on average. Some of the most noticeable differences were in areas of the brain that control language, memory, emotion and behavior, according to a 2014 report in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

To find out whether these structural differences translated into cognitive differences, scientists examined detailed brain scans of more than 1,400 men and women. No matter which group of people they looked at, what type of scan was used or which part of the brain was examined, the researchers consistently failed to find patterns that set men and women apart.

“Although there are sex/gender differences in brain structure, brains do not fall into two classes, one typical of males and the other typical of females,” the team wrote in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Each brain is a unique mosaic of features, some of which may be more common in females compared with males, others may be more common in males compared with females, and still others may be common in both females and males.” …

‘After sitting 28 GCSE papers in four weeks, I was left thinking, “What was the point of all that?”, by Natalie Brundle

After taking 28 exams in a four-week period, after 12 years of formal education and three years of GCSE preparation, I was left wondering: what was the point of all that?

This year’s English and maths exams are being formatted to the new grading system of levels 9-1 instead of the usual and familiar A-U. This means that our year will have two different sets of grades for their GCSEs.

Never mind the fact that no one knew what exactly the grading system was like until the beginning of Year 11, or had had sight of any specimen papers, or had been told much at all about the new GCSEs, or that because of this we had a year less to get used to how the exam format might work: most of us managed to handle that.

But that wasn’t the end of it. This year we found ourselves with the dubious pleasure of memorising a host of formula sheets for maths and science. …

Unlearning the myth of American innocence, by Suzy Hansen

My mother recently found piles of my notebooks from when I was a small child that were filled with plans for my future. I was very ambitious. I wrote out what I would do at every age: when I would get married and when I would have kids and when I would open a dance studio.

When I left my small hometown for college, this sort of planning stopped. The experience of going to a radically new place, as college was to me, upended my sense of the world and its possibilities. The same thing happened when I moved to New York after college, and a few years later when I moved to Istanbul. All change is dramatic for provincial people. But the last move was the hardest. In Turkey, the upheaval was far more unsettling: after a while, I began to feel that the entire foundation of my consciousness was a lie.

For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.

Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself. …

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