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Neuroethics Recommended Awesome Reading (RAWR)!: Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference

The Neuroethics Blog first installment of RAWR (Recommended AWesome Reading) features an article by Emory’s own Dr. Deboleena Roy.

Deboleena Roy

Dr. Deboleena Roy is an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Neuroscience & Behavioral Biology. Dr. Roy’s academic interests and background are exquisitely interdisciplinary. Trained as a neuroendocrinologist and molecular biologist, Dr. Roy uses her perspective as a neuroscientist to explore dimensions of feminist theory and feminist ethics.

Her recent article published in the journal Neuroethics is titled, “Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference.” In this article, Dr. Roy invites readers to examine how neuroscience data, particularly data emerging from studies utilizing brain imaging, are informing larger conversations about sex and/or gender differences. Science often benefits from having the luxury of moral authority, but Dr. Roy’s article reminds us that neuroscience and scientific research have often been fraught with a lack of thoroughly considered experimental design and this has lent itself to harmful and misleading interpretations. In her article, she highlights how even recently published neuroscience data suffer from lacking a more broadly conceived approach. The result of these being that experiments are often inherently constructed with assumptions that reinforce social stereotypes and interpreted in ways that can promote damaging societal power differentials with regard to race and gender.

A primary example of such work can be seen here in the popular media, and can be viewed in accompanying embedded video on that page. And also seen in the figure below, from a study published in Science last year describing how men are essentially “turned off” by a woman’s tears. Note the reinforcement of gender roles and general assumptions in the study design of distinct heterosexual identities (i.e., gender binaries).

Gelstein et al., 2011 Science Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 226-230

The abstract to Dr. Roy’s article is below. To read more, the article can be found here.

This paper examines how the new field of neuroethics is responding to the old problem of  difference, particularly to those ideas of biological difference emerging from neuroimaging research that purports to further delineate our understanding of sex and/or gender differences in the brain. As the field develops, it is important to ask what is new about neuroethics compared to bioethics in this regard, and whether the concept of difference is being problematized within broader contexts of power and representation. As a feminist science studies scholar trained in the neurosciences, it seems logical to me that, as a growing field, neuroethics should reach out to the rich bodies of scholarship on the history of medicine, feminist theory and feminist bioethics while attempting to approach discussions of sex, gender and sexuality differences in the brain. What is also clear to me is that feminist scholars need to learn how to engage with neuroimaging studies on sex, gender and sexuality not just to critique, but also to productively contribute to neuroscientific research. The field of neuroethics can potentially provide the appropriate forum for this interdisciplinary engagement and create opportunities for shared perplexity. I suggest three possible points of departure for creating this shared perplexity, namely (i) is difference being measured in the study for the purpose of understanding difference in and of itself, or for the purpose of division?; (ii) is there an appreciation for biological complexity?; and (iii) is it assumed that structural differences can be conveniently translated into functional differences? 

Stay tuned for our next installment of Neuroethics RAWR! showcasing local Neuroethics Scholarship.

Want to cite this post?

Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Neuroethics Recommended Awesome Reading (RAWR)!: Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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  1. Hmm, my first attempt at a comment didn't go through, so I will try to recreate it…

    Great acronym, and great idea for a series of posts! I will add Dr. Roy's article to my reading list.

    I also recommend Cordelia Fine's book, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. It covers some of the same concepts, but it's aimed at the lay public. I think it's really important to engage the public with this sort of neuroethical criticism, especially given what we learned at journal club about people's credulousness (credulity? Firefox says they're both real words) when presented with neuroimaging data in support of a theory, no matter how flawed.


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