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Sex, gender, and the brain – biological determinism versus socio-cultural constructivism Sigrid Schmitz 1 Abstract This paper outlines the field of brain research devoted to the question of sex differences in brain structure and function with implications for human behaviour and cognition. Based on the analytical approaches of gender and science studies, the findings, the methodological influences, the theories and interpretations in this field of research are critically reviewed. Taking account of the inconsistent findings on this issue, the differing approaches of biological determinism and socio-cultural constructivism are elaborated in order to develop a differentiated view on brain-behaviour interrelations against a gendered background. The constructive approach reveals a challenging view on the nature-nurture-debate and points to gender constructions in the brain formed by a specific psychosocial and cultural background. 2 Introduction The question of sex differences1 1 I use the term sex differences because studies in brain research are predominantly based on a concept of binary biological sexes, female and male, although some papers use the term gender in their title. in the human brain is being controversially discussed since mid 19th century and has not lost its discursive power until today, neither in the scientific debate (1–4) nor in popular science literature (5–7), to name only a few examples. One reason for this ongoing debate is the aim not only Sigrid Schmitz 58 to detect distinct differences between female and male brains, but also to explain how their brain structures and functions determine thinking, behaviour, cognitive skills, attitudes, and perceptions about the world, and even sexual orientation. Meanwhile, modern brain imaging technologies2 The concern of this paper is to critically review the current state of brain research on sex differences, to reassess which findings remain contradictory and to challenge the interpretations derived from these findings. The sex/gender distinction give new insights into the living brain that should lead to an improved understanding of the brain’s structure and function in relation to cognitive processes. 3 In this paper I elaborate analytical approaches of gender research is of particular importance in this context in order to challenge the view that behaviour, cognition and action can be explained by biological sex determination (concerning genes, hormones, the brain structures and functions) to full extent. In contrast, by using the term gender we can also challenge the idea that experiences in a socio-cultural context not only influence the individual’s behaviour and identity , but, moreover, that those gendered learning processes gain influence on the formation of biological processes and bodily development. 4 2 The radiological method of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) uses nuclear magnetic components (e.g., of hydrogen atoms) that react in a scanner to radio-frequency waves and generate a tissue specific signal. The signals are then computed into grey-level characteristics to visualise and separate brain structures in a digital image. Further processing is conducted to colour the brain structures or to develop three-dimensional brain models. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) refers to the same principle but measures the magnetic changes of oxygenised/deoxygenised blood flow related to activation pattern in certain brain areas. Positron Emission Tomography (PET), in contrast, uses radio-actively-labeled oxygen or glucose that accumulates in nerve cell networks during information processing to detect and visualise active brain areas. that can help to assess the validity of brain research results and to gain a profound understanding of the mutual interactions between biology and culture within the scopeof sex, gender, brain and behaviour. I start this analysis by disclosing some presumptions that underlie sex difference research in the neuroscientific field (section 3). I then pick out three fields from current brain research on sex differences (language, space, and the corpus callosum) to apply the analytical framework of gender research for a critical analysis (section 4). In doing so, it is helpful to differentiate between two perspectives, Keller called science of gender and gender in science (8). The first perspective, science of gender, focuses on the empirical inquiry within scientific research and critically reflects the relations between theories, methods, findings and their interpretations. This analytical approach not only uncovers research results that support or contradict each other, it also challenges the ways in which these findings are elaborated and presented with certain methods of research. 3 For a detailed explanation of the sex/gender distinction, see the paper of I. Klinge in this book. 4 Gender research covers analytical approaches that not only refer to the biological formation of...


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