Pink Brain, Blue Brain is a thorough investigation into gender differences by neuroscientist Lise Eliot. With a nuanced and scientific perspective, she delves into all the major cognitive gender differences observed in children and adults and explores the source of these differences. Initial chapters focus first on babies, then toddlers, then preschoolers and older, and later chapters address verbal differences, math differences, and emotional/interpersonal differences.
The major concept that this book reinforced for me is that for any given difference it is not a question of nature OR nurture (genetic or environmental), but rather almost always a question of nature AND nurture. There are minor differences that can be attributed to things such as hormone levels or seemingly innate brain differences, but these differences are in all cases very small, and they grow into much larger differences through the environment the child is in. A small tendency towards one behavior or another can quickly become reinforced and enlarged when a child continually chooses or is encouraged to participate in that behavior – and vice versa. Furthermore, adult expectations for the behavior of one gender or another can further reinforce small differences. In each chapter, Eliot discusses many studies that have been done exploring the origins of gender differences – and demonstrating the ways in which adults set subconscious expectations – and concludes the chapter with many suggestions that parents, caregivers, and teachers can follow to minimize the exaggeration of small differences and instead encourage every child to develop every aspect of their abilities to their full potential.
I was hoping that Eliot would spend more time discussing the brain mechanisms involved in the nature and nurture cycle, but she only addresses this a little bit in the introduction. The main mechanism at work here is plasticity of the brain – that things we experience actually change our brain – and I think it is very important to understand. A brain difference in an adult does NOT mean that it is genetic: as Eliot points out, since we are biological creatures, of course any difference in behavior is going to stem from a biological difference, but that says nothing about how that biological difference came about.
There were just a couple things Eliot said, almost in passing, that I disagreed with, but they do not majorly detract from the book. One is her attitude towards competition: she said something to the effect that since we live in a competitive society, it is important for children to have some experience with competition. I do not agree with this perspective; I think that if children had less exposure to competition our society as a whole could become less competitive. The other was when she mentioned in passing that she encouraged her daughter in math by giving her rewards: there have been many studies that demonstrate that rewards destroy intrinsic motivation for the behavior being rewarded, so this is very much NOT a healthy way to encourage a girl in a traditionally male subject such as math.
However, all my minor caveats aside, it is overall an excellent book and I highly recommend it to anyone involved with children or interested in these topics.