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Brain Wires and Bad Science

Dear Lucy,

Cast your mind back, cast it right back. You may remember that once, in conversation a long time ago, I uttered the phrase that a brain is “wired” in certain ways. Upon verbalising this phrase I was lambasted in a way that can only be described as ‘verbal rape’. This condemnation has continued to the present day whenever the topic of the brain comes up in our discussions.

Today however, I may be getting the last word on this topic.

Time Magazine – quite the prestigious newsmagazine and resource, you must agree – has approved my comment. Here are some quotes from the recent article entitled How the Brain Rewires Itself:

For decades, the prevailing dogma in neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have.

The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications. For one thing, it lowered expectations about the value of rehabilitation for adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke or about the possibility of fixing the pathological wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases.

But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity” – the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren’t minor tweaks either. Something as basic as the function of the visual or auditory cortex can change as a result of a person’s experience of becoming deaf or blind at a young age. Even when the brain suffers a trauma late in life, it can rezone itself like a city in a frenzy of urban renewal. If a stroke knocks out, say, the neighbourhood of motor cortex that moves the right arm, a new technique called constraint-induced movement therapy can coax next-door regions to take over the function of the damaged area. The brain can be rewired.

Of course, this may not be news to you considering your past research experience, but what I thought may interest you is how often they are saying that a brain is “wired”. I’m not arguing that because Time says so, it is correct. What I am saying however, is that what I said is not worthy of the lambasting that I received… the phrase used is an acceptable layman’s term. Am I a layman? Of course I am… I did a degree in Computer Science, not Neuro-Psychology! That’s a ‘hard science’, not one of these ‘fuzzy soft-pseudo-sciences’ that you are so drawn to*.


*Note: I am not a science despot and by no means consider any psychological or sociological studies a ‘soft-science’. This is simply an ‘in-joke’ that is written to stir angry feelings in the recipient. Please don’t hurt me. 

You may also be interested in some of the articles that the above links to, especially this one by Steven Pinker (of Blank Slate, ‘fame’): The Mystery of Consciousness

For those who prefer laughing at others rather than reading petty squabbles, direct your mince pies here: Cliff Arnall is depressing. The first three links are worthy of a read; especially Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’ retort (more Bad Science available on my Blogroll). I’m embarrassed to admit that this ‘psychologist’ was from Cardiff University.

Originally found at Mind Hacks: Feeling the connection.


  1. Lucy
    Posted January 22, 2007 at 11:32 | Permalink


    I’m afraid you seem to have argued my point for me, which is very satisfying and kind of you. The quotation you have selected is proving that there is no “hard wiring” and that the brain has a remarkably high degree of plasticity.

    Also, you are recalling our said debate with some rose coloured spectacles. If I may gently remind you, we were not discussing whether the brain was “wired” or not. That would have been interesting for sure, but perhaps wouldn’t have mad me quite so argumentative.

    Lloyd,this was the discussion: You claimed that men’s brains were wired differently to women’s brains.

    It was on this point that I decided to lambast you. (Certainly, you can now trawl articles that actually prove you were right as there ARE certainly differences between female and male brains. For example, men are far more likely to suffer from aphasia following a stroke than women are. But, I don’t think that there are differences in the layout of neural connections (the wiring) in male and female brains. I imagine the brain works in the same manner for both sexes)

    It is of no surprise whatsoever that an article has referred to “wiring”. This is standard. Computer metaphors are widely employed by cognitive and neuro-cognitive psychologists to refer to the human brain. Infact, the most advanced technology of the epoch is always used as a metaphor for the brain to help us to try and comprehend it. For example, in the eighteenth century it was frequently referred to as a clock.

    It is easy to see how neural pathways resemble wiring in computers. But as your quotation suggests, the human brain is far from rigid.

    So perhaps what you were trying to say was, that as a female, my brain was wired to kick your ass?



  2. Posted January 22, 2007 at 13:01 | Permalink

    Your rebuttal is well structured and comes in a very timely matter.  However, it may be slightly wrong.  It looks like I will have to clarify.

    First, a pedantic correction. You say that “the quotation you have selected is proving that there is no “hard wiring” and that the brain has a remarkably high degree of plasticity”.  Just so you know, I have never said that the brain is “hard-wired” and thus cannot alter.  All I said was, and I quote this from you once again, “men’s brains [are] wired differently to women’s brains”.

    It seems that many people do agree with me on this though Lucy… why do you think it is that men are biologically more suited to science than women? (Pinker vs. Spelke ‘Edge’ Debate: The Science of Gender and Science)  Just kidding, I don’t agree with this.

    However, do have a look at this article: The Neuroanatomy of General Intelligence: Sex Matters which states:

    …although there are obvious differences in brain structure, overall intelligence was not any different between the sexes.

    Now this article argues for my point that brains are structurally different and this could go on for ever.

    An alternative is that when I first said that “men’s brains [are] wired differently to women’s brains”, you assumed something that I didn’t mean.

    When I said this, I didn’t mean that when a man thinks of a blue sky or calculates 9×6 he uses the frontal lobe and a woman uses the temporal lobe or similar such differences – I meant that when a man and woman ‘work-out’ certain things, the processes used are slightly different.

    Forgive me for using Wikipedia’s Sex and Intelligence article – it is well cited though!

    In 2005, Haier et al. reported that compared with men, women show more white matter and fewer gray matter areas related to intelligence. They also report that the brain areas correlated with IQ differ between the sexes. They conclude that men and women apparently achieve similar IQ results with different brain regions. [9]

    Although women may have smaller brains than men, they appear to have greater neuron density in their prefrontal lobe ([10]), which is involved in higher functions such as planning, judgement, and language, although men still have higher absolute grey matter volume than women in their prefrontal lobe ([11]).

    I admit I’m no neurologist, but am I not correct in saying that men have better spatial, and women greater language, abilities? (I’m dodging the clichéd and inherently bigoted ‘map and driving’ metaphor here!) Now that’s what I mean by ‘wired differently’ as the brain is surely used in a different way if this is the case?

    I’m confused and don’t even know what we’re talking about any more. Regardless, maybe you should install Intelligence v.2 as it seems your current version is incompatible with your gender!