His Brain, Her Brain

[Image 'laughing-demons.jpg' cannot be displayed]Several intriguing behavioral studies add to the evidence that some sex differences in the brain arise before a baby draws its first breath. “Not so long ago neuroscientists believed that sex differences in the brain were limited mainly to those regions responsible for mating behavior. In a 1966 Scientific American article entitled ‘Sex Differences in the Brain,’ Seymour Levine of Stanford University described how sex hormones help to direct divergent reproductive behaviors in rats–with males engaging in mounting and females arching their backs and raising their rumps to attract suitors. Levine mentioned only one brain region in his review: the hypothalamus, a small structure at the base of the brain that is involved in regulating hormone production and controlling basic behaviors such as eating, drinking and sex. A generation of neuroscientists came to maturity believing that ‘sex differences in the brain’ referred primarily to mating behaviors, sex hormones and the hypothalamus.

That view, however, has now been knocked aside by a surge of findings that highlight the influence of sex on many areas of cognition and behavior, including memory, emotion, vision, hearing, the processing of faces and the brain’s response to stress hormones. This progress has been accelerated in the past five to 10 years by the growing use of sophisticated noninvasive imaging techniques such as positron-emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can peer into the brains of living subjects.

These imaging experiments reveal that anatomical variations occur in an assortment of regions throughout the brain. Jill M. Goldstein of Harvard Medical School and her colleagues, for example, used MRI to measure the sizes of many cortical and subcortical areas. Among other things, these investigators found that parts of the frontal cortex, the seat of many higher cognitive functions, are bulkier in women than in men, as are parts of the limbic cortex, which is involved in emotional responses. In men, on the other hand, parts of the parietal cortex, which is involved in space perception, are bigger than in women, as is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure that responds to emotionally arousing information–to anything that gets the heart pumping and the adrenaline flowing. These size differences, as well as others mentioned throughout the article, are relative: they refer to the overall volume of the structure relative to the overall volume of the brain.

Differences in the size of brain structures are generally thought to reflect their relative importance to the animal. For example, primates rely more on vision than olfaction; for rats, the opposite is true. As a result, primate brains maintain proportionately larger regions devoted to vision, and rats devote more space to olfaction. So the existence of widespread anatomical disparities between men and women suggests that sex does influence the way the brain works.” (Scientific American)

The Dark Side

“The rise of ‘happy slapping’ shows how not every application of mobile technology can be a valuable one. So how does society — and the industry — react?

‘Happy slapping’ — essentially violently attacking someone while it’s recorded with a videophone — is a growing problem in the UK, with British Transport police investigating 200 incidents in the last six months in London’s public transport system alone, with who knows how many attacks going unreported. This isn’t harmless childplay, the ferociousness and utter stupidity of these attacks is appalling. And the hooligans have embraced user-created content: they share the videos via Bluetooth, MMS and the Web, often describing their efforts as ‘Happy Slap TV’.

Blogger Alfie Dennen has cobbled some videos he’s found together to make the point that these kids are violent criminals (via The Mobile Technology Weblog). It’s grim and disgusting footage, showing clips of kids attacking not just their friends, but complete strangers minding their own business (this video depicts scenes of real violence, so skip over it unless you’re prepared to be offended).

It appears on the whole that technology — for once — isn’t being blamed, but some schools have banned cameraphones in hopes of stopping such attacks. While one would be hard-pressed to argue mobile technology causes these attacks, there’s no denying it has helped spread the fad. That’s perhaps the most worrying bit — Bluetooth and MMS make it easy for these kids to share their videos with others, quickly turning things into a competition.” (The Feature)

What’s the Matter with Liberals?

Thomas Frank: “All across America a good old-fashioned red-state Christmas—just like the ones we used to know, only much touchier—brought another year of liberal woe to a close. Righteous parents fantasized that they were striking back at the liberal Gestapo every time they uttered the subversive phrase ‘Merry Christmas.’ Visions of noble persecution danced in everyone’s heads, as dazed Democrats wandered upstairs for yet another long winter’s nap.” (The New York Review of Books)

Drug adverts have ‘profound effect’ on prescribing

“Advertising drugs directly to patients has a “profound effect” on the way doctors prescribe, finds a new study in which actors posed as patients.

Drug companies have poured billions of dollars into direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising in the US since the rules governing mass media advertising for prescription drugs were relaxed in 1997. Other countries – such as the UK, for example – do not permit advertising directly to patients.” (New Scientist)

I find the process obscene but, to be candid, in the eight years since drug advertising has targeted the public directly, I have yet to be asked for a particular medication by a patient because they or a family member had seen it in an ad.

Crippled by their Culture

Thomas Sowell:

“The redneck culture proved to be a major handicap for both whites and blacks who absorbed it. Today, the last remnants of that culture can still be found in the worst of the black ghettos, whether in the North or the South, for the ghettos of the North were settled by blacks from the South. The counterproductive and self-destructive culture of black rednecks in today’s ghettos is regarded by many as the only ‘authentic’ black culture–and, for that reason, something not to be tampered with. Their talk, their attitudes, and their behavior are regarded as sacrosanct.

The people who take this view may think of themselves as friends of blacks. But they are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies.” (WSJ Opinion Journal)

This article by a scholar at the conservative Hoover Institute thinktank argues, in a new form, that the institutionalized racism of American society has not disadvantaged African Americans as much as their own ignorant attitudes. On the surface, he cites credible evidence that the ‘cracker’ or ‘redneck’ culture of the South, applying to blacks and whites alike, has profound effects such as illegitimacy, increased violence, and decreased mental aptitude.

The problem, Sowell says in explaining the disproportionate impact of redneck ignorance on blacks, is that while only about a third of the American white population lived within redneck culture more than 90% of American blacks came through it. In attempting to explain black disadvantage by cultural rather than racist influences, Sowell further claims that redneck culture has faded away faster among whites than among blacks, even with the dispersion of southern blacks to northern cities in the decades after the Civil War. But this is fallacious; I would argue that redneck cultural attributes are largely alive and well in white rural culture, both southern and northern, today, and that they form the foundation for the red states’ support of the GOP. For example, see the persuasive work Ed Fitzgerald has done since the 2004 election on his weblog contrasting the red and the blue voters on numerous sociocultural and demographic dimensions. If it were cracker ignorance rather than disenfranchisement and oppression that shaped black disadvantage, wouldn’t you expect them to perform more like their white redneck brethren at the polls?? Digby did a wonderful series after the election about understanding the Republican appeal to the white exurban populace in terms of exploitation of their xenophobic tribal instincts and the fear of government giveaways by effete liberals to people who don’t look like themselves in the urban ghettoes.

The distinctions Sowell attempts to draw are a perfect example of one’s agenda — to blame the victims and explain away the victimization — shaping one’s argument. He is essentially saying ignorant people are ignorant people, white or black, and that there just happen to be a higher proportion of black rednecks because of demographic and historical forces. But it seems absurd to claim equal access even to ignorant cultural influences. By far the greater influence was the estrangement from the culture achieved by slavery and the decades of racist oppression since. Mr. Sowell too seems crippled by his own culture, that of white conservative racism with an academic veneer. [Error: see the comments. I hadn’t realized that Sowell is an African American himself. In fact, it makes more sense that way. — FmH]

If you can’t master English, try Globish

“It happens all the time: during an airport delay the man to the left, a Korean perhaps, starts talking to the man opposite, who might be Colombian, and soon they are chatting away in what seems to be English. But the native English speaker sitting between them cannot understand a word.

They don’t know it, but the Korean and the Colombian are speaking Globish, the latest addition to the 6,800 languages that are said to be spoken across the world. ” (International Herald Tribune)