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Intrepid Grrrl Reporter: A Dispatch from the NeuroGenderings II Conference

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending the NeuroCultures – NeuroGenderings II Conference at the University of Vienna.
The conference brought together an international group of scholars to discuss brain
research on sex and gender from a feminist perspective. The conference was a
treat for me, as I was able to meet a number of leading scholars in the field,
including some of the people I have mentioned in previous blogs. I presented a poster on the course, “Feminism, Sexuality, and Neuroethics,” which Cyd Cipolla and I co-taught last spring, and also presented a paper reviewing contemporary neuroscience research on transsexuality.

Although it is difficult to summarize two days’ worth of
keynote speeches, panels, and poster presentations, I would say that two main
themes emerged within the conference: the first was a critique of neurosexism
both within scientific research on sex, gender, and brain and in how this
research is communicated to the public through the media. The second was an
attempt to explore whether it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research on sex and gender and, if so, what
such research would look like.

Critiques of Neurosexism

My Poster Presentation

A number of the presenters at the conference carefully
analyzed how sexist assumptions inform a great deal of contemporary neuroscience
research on sex and gender. For example, in her keynote talk, Cordelia Fine analyzed
a representative sample of recent neuroimaging studies on language
lateralization. According to Fine, the studies reflected sexist assumptions in
three ways: 1) by exaggerating the extent of male-female differences; 2) by exaggerating
the functional importance of M-F differences (many of the researchers made
post-hoc speculations about the significance of M-F differences, i.e. greater
activation in X area in males compared to females may explain why men like
football more than women); and, 3) exaggerating the fixedness of these
differences by not investigating how differences might vary over time (plasticity)
or based on context.

Other scholars examined how neuroscientific research on sex
and gender is conveyed to the public by popular science writers. For example,
in her presentation, Odile Fillod analyzed the ways in which the theory that
oxytocin promotes maternal bonding in humans has been popularized in France.
According to Fillod, the theory has been used in some cases to support a
conservative agenda, specifically the idea that women are natural care-givers
whereas men are not.

Imagining a Feminist Neuroscience

Daphna Joel

A number of the presenters grappled with the question of whether
it would be possible to conduct feminist neuroscience research on sex and
gender and, if so, what such research would look like. Presenters came at this
question in very different ways. Keynote speaker Daphna Joel,
a practicing researcher in psychology and neuroscience, described how her
thinking was revolutionized after she found that 15 minutes of stress could
change a particular structure in a rat’s brain from the “male form” to the “female
form” (and vice versa). I highly recommend reading her article, “Male or female? Brains are intersex” in Frontiers
in Integrative Neuroscience
in which she argues that there is no such thing as a “male brain” or a “female
brain.” At the conference, Joel suggested that a feminist neuroscience research
program would be attentive to the fact that the brain is a complex structure
with the ability to change over time, while investigating the ways in which sex
interacts with a variety of other factors to influence different brain
structures in complicated ways.

Isabelle Dussauge

Coming at the question from a very different perspective, Isabelle Dussauge led the audience through a thought experiment. Assuming the role of a historian
from the year 2090, she described what had happened in the 2020s and 2030s
after queer feminists created their own organization to fund queer/feminist neuroscience
research. She described an influential experiment funded by the organization, which
compared the neural mechanisms of desire between those from sexual or gender
minority groups and those from sexual or gender majority groups in order to
understand the effects of power differentials on neural mechanisms of desire.
Notable aspects of the experiment included the following: participants brought
in objects that they found arousing and non-arousing and were scanned while
interacting with those objects; in addition to scanning, extensive qualitative
interviews were conducted with participants; and, scanning and qualitative
interviews were repeated regularly over the span of two years. At the end of her talk, Dussauge expressed both doubt and hope that such an experiment would ever be conducted.

At the end of the conference, I don’t think we had resolved
the question of whether a feminist neuroscience research program on sex and
gender is possible or, if it is possible, what it would look like, but the
conference certainly got me thinking in all sorts of new ways. What do you
think? Is there such a thing as a feminist neuroscience research program on sex and

Want to cite this post?

Gupta, K. (2012). Intrepid Grrrl Reporter: A Dispatch from the NeuroGenderings II Conference. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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  1. Katherine Bryant October 3, 2012 at 12:30 PM

    "Is there such a thing as a feminist neuroscience research program on sex and gender?"

    I think there could be, but there's probably one main obstacle: funding – can you promote research using feminist principles, given that most grant-readers probably don't understand how normative assumptions shape most other neuroscience research on these questions?


  2. Hi Katherine,

    That's a great question. As someone who doesn't apply for grants in the sciences, I'm definitely not the best person to answer it but I do have a few thoughts. First, I don't think you could propose something totally outside of the box to a traditional funding agency. Second, I think you would have to be careful about the rhetoric you use in the grant application – primarily stressing why doing a (slightly) different type of study than is normally done will actually generate more complete knowledge. As a crude example, you could argue that because we know from other research that gender differences in cognition change based on context, neuroscience studies that have only examined gender differences in mental rotation tasks within a fixed context may actually be missing something. Thus, a neuroscience study investigating the effects of context on gender differences in mental rotation tasks would improve our understanding of those differences.

    So, in short, I think you could get some feminist projects funded. But, I do agree that funding structures definitely limit a scientist's ability to do feminist research. This is why one of the conference presenters, Isabelle Dussauge, talked about the need for "queer feminists" to create their own funding organization ("Neuroqueer").

    I would be interested to hear what others think!



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