Human Adult Neurogendering: Brain Plasticity and Sex Difference Research
This paper analyses the extent to which the growing research on neuroplasticity in the 20th century related to neuroscientific investigations of sex differences. In the late 19th century, William James formulated the notion of a malleable brain that is responsive to exterior influences. At the same time, however, the influential work of Santiago Ramón y Cajal led to an adoption of the view of a static adult brain. The latter concept shaped neuroscientific theories for the next century: the idea of human adult neurogenesis became a neuroscientific fact only around the turn of the 21st century. Parallel to the slow stabilization of this concept of structural plasticity, the number of neuroscientific investigations of sex differences increased significantly. Most of these studies reported functional or structural differences between female and male brains and asserted their congenital nature. Focusing on the second half of the 20th century, this paper will analyze the relationship between plasticity research, neuroscientific investigations of sex differences, and the communication of related findings to a broader public. Drawing on clinical and cognitive neuroscientific publications as well as on personal papers of 20th-century neuroscientists, I will address the following questions: Was the idea of innate sex differences resistant to the concept of neuroplasticity? How far did the social female/male dichotomy influence how neuroscientists approached sex/gender? How, if at all, did neuroscientists embrace the idea that gender might leave its material marks on initially unsexed human brains?
I have been able to win over Jonathan Moreno as the supervisor, and Ruben Gur as a collaborator for my project. The former gives guidance (and makes me read William James, whose Principles of Psychology I love), and the latter gives me access to his papers of four decades of sex difference research in neuropsychology. Ruben Gur and his wife Raquel have been main contributors to the field since they arrived in the US in the 1970s, and I am delighted and honored that I will be able to mine the papers that document their intellectual journey. I will have to surmount some obstacles before I can do so, however, since parts of the documents are stored at the University Records Center, and thus not publicly accessible—as they would be if they were at the University Archives, as I learned today. Luckily, Mark Frazier Lloyd is more than willing to help in facing the challenges, and so is Sherry Wang, executive assistant to RC (I wish I had one, too).
The project is still in its very, very early infancy, because I’m taking a French for Reading Knowledge class2 currently that keeps me busy four days a week, but I will post more as soon as I know more, or hope more, about how the project will advance.
- Congratulations to you if you’re reading this in your RSS inbox and don’t know what I’m writing about. [↩]
- Yeah, there is a requirement for every student to demonstrate reading proficiency in at least two foreign languages, one of which will be German for me, but since I forgot all my Latin, I have to learn French to fulfill the entire requirement. Oh, and get this: I will have to take a formal German exam with Heidi Voskuhl! We will decide on a German text together, which I am allowed to prepare with for the exam; then I will have to translate a passage before her, and talk about the German text with her—in English—in order to prove that I understood its content. If German bureaucracy is rigid, then what is this?? [↩]