NeuroGenderings III: So Many Women Saying Smart Things in a Conference Room

From May 8–10, 2014, more than a hundred students and scholars from the neurosciences, social sciences, and the humanities convened at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, for the NeuroGenderings III conference. The organizers Cynthia Kraus (University of Lausanne) and Anelis Kaiser (University of Bern) titled this meeting the “1st international Dissensus Conference on brain and gender.” 14 papers by scholars at different career stages, mainly from Europe and the US, provided examples of successful sex/gender-sensitive brain research and addressed problematic neuroscientific concepts and practices from feminist and queer perspectives. The four keynote speakers illustrate the diversity of approaches: Rebecca Jordan-Young (Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Barnard College), Gillian Einstein (Social & Behavioural Health Sciences, University of Toronto), Georgina Rippon (Psychology, Aston University), and Anne Fausto-Sterling (Molecular Biology, Cell Biology & Biochemistry and Gender Studies, Brown University). Papers were selected by the NeuroGenderings Network, a non-institutionalized interdisciplinary group of scholars, which was founded in 2010 to offer a platform for exchanging best practice models for and reservations against sex/gender research in the neuroscientific realm. All attendees consented that dissenting from unquestioned concepts and practices in brain research can benefit both our neuroscientific knowledge and our social life.

This is the short report I wrote for the INS newsletter—the May issue of which arrived precisely 1:59 h after I had submitted my short report as “of great interest to the INS members.” I hope they will consider it for July.

Regardless of what my fellow INS members’ decision on what to put in the next newsletter will be, I want to provide you with a more detailed insight into this fabulous, challenging, and stimulating conference. I want to go through it paper by paper in what follows, but I encourage you to take a look at the book of abstracts as well:

Rebecca Jordan-Young (“Sex as Chimera: Tools for (Un)Thinking Difference”) argued in the first keynote address that sex fulfills all three of the chimera definitions provided by Merriam Webster Online. She expanded on four principles in contemporary neuroscientific research on sex/gender issues: overlap, mosaicism, contingency, and entanglement. In each of the four subsections of her talk, RJY exemplified to what extent neuroscientific findings of sex/gender differences or similarities in brain depend on the researchers’ presuppositions, their models of investigational categories, and their methods of data analysis. She suggested that neuroscientists might be able to escape the denial of the interwovenness of the object and the practice of brain research by redirecting their view to overlaps in results of different subject groups, and by acknowledging that every result is always only a snapshot, bound to a specific place and time, and not a proof for some congenital male or female nature.

Can we perform neuroscience in a way that acknowledges human diversity in all its forms? This was the question pursued by Gillian Einstein in her keynote talk (“When Does a Difference Make a Difference? Examples form Situated Neuroscience”). GE introduced her current project on the effect of estrogen on women’s neurons, a field highly impacted by social meanings. In talking about the science related to menopause, GE illustrated that body systems are gendered: assigning ovaries with gendered meanings leads science and society to an overestimation of their effects on the brain and the rest of the body.

Gina Rippon’s confession that she herself did bad and ugly science in her early career was very refreshing (“Functional Neuroimaging (FNI) and Sex/Gender Research: Of Differences, Dichotomies and Entanglement, or: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”). GR pointed to several concrete neuroscientific “sins,” which resembled parts of RJY’s argument.1 For example, GR expanded on when size does and doesn’t matter—for instance, when (not) correcting fMRI results for brain size. She concluded with four provocative appeals: The neurosciences should (1) stop using fMRI because it only gives hints and no report of brain activity unlike MEG or EEG; (2) stop mapping discrete areas, and use network analysis instead; (3) stop comparing groups, and use regression techniques on the individual level instead; (4) stop sustaining stereotypes and become aware of unconscious biases.

Anne Fausto-Sterling delivered the last keynote address (“How Your Generic Baby Acquires Gender: A Dynamic Systems Approach”). With the help of dynamic systems, AFS tries to understand how generic babies become gendered toddlers. She argued that gender begins in pre-symbolic coding that is generated from sensory receptors, encoded in the brain and in the peripheral nervous system. That is, how toddlers are handled becomes inscribed in their sensory system, including any gender difference, and this is how humans embody exterior gender differences in a very early stage of their life. Thus, AFS explained, cognitive scientists, who treat mainly children of three to six years of age, should pay attention to this early stage of gender development as well.

Two roundtable discussions involved Mathieu Arminjon, Isabelle Dussauge, Hannah Fitsch, Laurence Kaufmann, Deboleena Roy, and Helga Satzinger as well as the keynote speakers Anne Fausto-Sterling, Rebecca Jordan-Young, and Gillian Einstein respectively. Recurring discussion topics were how feminist scholars can balance their excitement about brain research and their occasional criticism of neuroscientific concepts and practices.

Some influential heads within the NeuroGenderings Network provided background information on the meeting: Isabelle Dussauge and Sigrid Schmitz gave an account of the origins of the Network, and Cynthia Kraus talked mainly about the “Dissensus” in the subtitle. Her contribution made clear that “Dissensus” was deliberately chosen as a response to the contested 2006 article “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders.” Dissensus was later put up again by Sigrid Schmitz (“Plastic Brains, Feminist Materialism, Neoliberal Contexts: Notes for a Dissensus Debate”). She highlighted that brain bodies are always both matter and meaning, and challenged recent brain plasticity discourses in which the brain remains a static matter on which power is acted upon.2 Cynthia Kraus and Anelis Kaiser were the main organizers of this year’s NeuroGenderings conference, and AK herself contributed an original paper (“Empirical NeuroGenderings: Outline of a Research Program”). Her current work analyzes fMRI results with a multiparametric correlations approach, that is, she is explicitly not looking at sex/gender differences. Her parameters are, for example, the amount of physical activity during childhood, and the subjective amount of work the test subject had to put into fitting the own gender role.

Giordana Grossi presented a review of already published literature (“Hardwired: History of a Misleading Metaphor”). She traced the use of the term “hardwired” within 20th-century neuroscience—a challenging project, as she explained. GG illustrated that, in general, the authors of neuroscientific articles used “hardwired” without defining it. The machine metaphor thus became a projection term and was used to designate characteristics of the brain, of individuals, and of emotions, usually as part of the conclusion, and not uttered as a hypothesis itself. Annelies Kleinherenbrink presented on a related topic (“Plasticity as Boundary Object”). She argued that brain plasticity can be viewed as a boundary object, and that it does not necessarily lead to queer science and to an acknowledgement of gender embodiment.3 Rachel Weitzenkorn’s presentation resembled Giordana Rossi’s with regard to the methodological approach: she mined neuroscientific publications in order to trace the construction and changes of a single concept, in her case, lordosis (“The Dissensus of the Apparatus: How to Frame a Meta-Analysis of the Uses and Conclusions Surrounding the Apparatus Known as Lordosis”). In her paper, RW treated this specific posture as an apparatus in the sense of Karan Barad, that is, as enabling objectivity in behavioral research, and not only a behavior in mating situations. She illustrated how lordosis moved across the boundaries of sexual and developmental research, pharmacological and socio-affective studies, as well as plasticity discourses. Plasticity was also significant for Victoria Pitts-Taylor’s talk (“Poverty in the Brain? Theorizing Neural Plasticity”). VPT illustrated that many studies on the impact of socio-economic status on the brain can be assessed with the same critiques as studies on sex/gender; for example, with regard to their unbalanced focus on one group at the end of a whole spectrum of individuals (in this case, the poor ones), with sometimes overt stereotypical stigmatizations, and with an extrapolation of functional outcomes from neurophysiological phenomena.

Jared Pool presented his and Daniel Margulies’s work on how to integrate a Butlerian notion of performativity into human connectome research (“Queering Gender in the Normative Brain”). He described how questionnaires might be utilized to gain access to latent traits, for instance, but he emphasized that “mixed” methods aren’t enough to queer the neurosciences—in order to do so, one also needs “mixed” data and “mixed” results. Sari van Anders presented a scientific project, too (“Testosterone as Trojan Horse: Constructing a Feminist and Queer Bioscience with Social Neuroendocrinology”). In her scientific studies, SvA breaks down oftentimes unanalyzed investigational concepts, like “high desire,” for example, in which she distinguishes the wish for emotional connectedness from longing erotic engagement or seeking sensation, for instance. SvA continued Jared Pool’s assessment of queering neuroscientific research practice: her questionnaires contain blanks for self-classification instead of check boxes with standard categories, and she refuses the binary division between experiments and qualitative data acquisition through interviews. Diana Schellenberg talked about how to queer a neuroscientific research protocol as well (“Sex/Gender Assessment in Psychology, Neuropsychology and Related Empirical Sciences”). She illustrated her multi-step program to realize a multidimensional and multifactorial approach to sex/gender, and gave insight into the extent to which a researcher’s own background and privileges have to be taken into consideration to achieve this goal of queer neuroscience. In contrast to DS, Daphna Joel explained how she obtained queer results by using neuroscientific standard methods (“Queering Gender Using Positivist Methods”). By analyzing many existing brain data sets, she and her team were able to show mosaicism in the human brain, that is, that the variability within each sex/gender group is tremendous, and that there is no such thing as a purely and under every condition “male” or “female” brain.

Christel Gumy juxtaposed neuroimaging research and histological studies in her contribution on adolescent brains (“Young in His/Her Head: A Critical History of the Adolescent Brain”). She showed how different neuroscientific subfields all used the adolescent brain as a material object around which “youth” could be redefined according to social concerns and interpreted as a risk factor for the individual. Finally, Catherine Vidal gave an account of the last three years of mobilization in France against so-called “gender theory” as an introduction to Odile Fillod’s research on yet another process of redefinitions: the Vatican’s attempt to justify a fundamentalist religious anthropology by employing neuroscientific research (“The Gender Theory of the Vatican: A Neuroscientific Critique”). OF illustrated that, unrecognized by the general public, the Vatican’s use of alleged scientific arguments against what it called “gender theory” in the early 21st century were obsolete, flawed, inconclusive, and didn’t support the Vatican’s claims regarding natural femininity and masculinity.

As so often, there was way too little time to discuss the inspiring and thought-provoking conference talks, which is why I truly hope I will be able to attend NeuroGenderings IV in the not too remote future.

  1. And quite naturally so, because they just submitted a co-authored paper. []
  2. Non-human agency 4dw! []
  3. And this idea is actually closely related to my current summer project, about which I will write more soon. []

2 thoughts on “NeuroGenderings III: So Many Women Saying Smart Things in a Conference Room

  1. I want to apologize for any inaccuracy in phrasing this report. Please do get in touch if you think your research is misrepresented! I’m more than happy to make changes. That’s what comments are for. :>

  2. Pingback: When Feminism Met Neuroscience… at a conference. - Gap Junction Science

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