Q&A WITH LISE ELIOT PH. D.
Author of Pink Brain Blue Brain
Question: We are big fans of your book, What’s Going On In There?, so we were very excited for your new book to be released. What inspired you to write Pink Brain Blue Brain?
Answer: Like many parents, I was fascinated by the differences between my daughter and sons. But as a neuroscientist, I was curious how these differences are reflected in their brains. And if there are differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, what causes them—nature or nurture? I’ve also always been fascinated by the degree to which our personalities and abilities are shaped by innate factors, such as genes and hormones, versus environment—learning and experiences. Sex differences are a perfect distillation of this question, because there are obviously inborn biological differences between boys and girls, as well as deep differences in the culture boys and girls grow up in. I relished the chance to dig into the actual scientific data on the comparative roles of nature and nurture in creating sex differences in children’s brains and behavior.
Question: If readers were to take away one key lesson from your book, what do you hope it would be?
Answer: That boy-girl differences are not as “hard-wired” as many parents believe. Yes, there are innate differences, but they are more like biases, not absolute preferences or abilities. And these small differences become magnified through all sorts of influences—marketing, parenting, and especially kid culture itself.
There is so little we do with our brains that is actually hard-wired. Most of our abilities, preferences, and even personality traits are shaped through neural plasticity—the brain’s fantastic ability to adapt to whatever culture, peer group, and educational system it is growing up in. A better way to think about it is that whatever you do with your brain is what it becomes “wired” for. So any time you see an obvious difference between men and women, or boys and girls, you have to ask yourself: How did they spend their time over the past three or thirty years to make their brains so good (or so bad) at certain skills? And more importantly, if boys or girls are struggling in a particular area—whether it’s math, reading, or just sitting still in class—how can the right environment and forms of practice help them catch up?
Question: Did anything unexpected come out of your research writing this book?
Answer: Yes. As a biologist, I started out focused on figuring out precisely how boys’ and girls’ brains differ and the role of hormones in creating such differences. But the data just aren’t there! Scientists have identified very few reliable differences between men’s and women’s brains, much less between boys’ and girls’. So rather than focusing on the “nature” side (for which there is very little evidence) I shifted my emphasis to the “nurture” side of the equation—toward uncovering the many ways in which parents, teachers, and especially children’s own beliefs about gender-appropriate behavior trigger the neuroplasticity that magnifies small initial differences into more troublesome boy-girl gaps.
Question: Which genuine difference surprised you the most?
Answer: The writing gap is much larger than I appreciated—especially when you consider all the great male writers through history. Boys clearly need more attention in this area, and I’ve suggested several ways to do this in the book. I was also frankly surprised that the sex difference in spatial navigation is as large as it is. I love maps and always orient myself in terms of north-south-east-west, so to learn that women, on average, really are poorer at this than men was eye-opening, and makes me all the more determined to use such “direction-speak” when I’m driving my kids—daughter and sons—around town.
On the other hand, I was honestly surprised at how weak the evidence is for hormonal effects on our mood and thinking abilities. While prenatal testosterone has some influence over play behavior and perhaps later sexual orientation, the sex hormones that rise at puberty and remain elevated in adults have surprisingly modest effects on our thinking—except for sex drive, which testosterone elevates in both men and women!
Question: You have two sons and a daughter. Do you think either girls or boys are harder to raise in a gender-balanced way?
Answer: Things have changed a lot for girls; parents’ preaching “you can do anything you want” is paying off, especially in sports and academic achievement. Girls really can do anything these days, and while some still restrict themselves to certain activities (for example, because they see computer programming camp as a “guy” thing), their parents are not usually the ones feeding them such ideas. We are definitely seeing girls moving into areas they didn’t broach before, like playing hockey, the trombone, or running for student council president.
With boys, it’s harder, because our society is still very homophobic and many people seem to believe that sending a boy to ballet class will make him gay. So we are freer to raise our daughters along a broader expanse of the gender spectrum, but boys are being painted into an ever-tinier corner as both they and society yields ground to girls. It takes a community-wide effort to make a difference. In my town, we happen to have a great choral teacher who gets considerable numbers of middle-school boys singing and dancing. But this is just one lucky happenstance of local culture. Most other activities are distressingly gender-segregated, which is bad for both boys and girls.
The only way around this pink-blue barrier is to require kids to engage in certain activities. When I was in middle school, everyone had to take woodworking as part of art class. Nowadays, we let kids choose woodworking versus painting, so guess who ends up in each class? As I argue in the book, we need to reign in some of kids’ choices if we want to reduce the gnawing gaps between boys and girls.
On the other hand, as a mother of a teenaged daughter, if you ask me which sex is harder to raise, regardless of gender issues… well, answering that will just get me into a lot of trouble.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lise Eliot is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science. A Chicago native, she received an A.B. degree from Harvard University, a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and did post-doctoral research at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. In addition to teaching and writing, Dr. Eliot lectures widely on children’s brain and gender development. She lives in Lake Bluff, Illinois with her husband and three children.