Thursday, September 11, 2008

Welcome, MS1's!

Orientation for the youngsters started last week, but I just wanted to say "HI" on my blog to the fresh-faced med students who will be having their white coat ceremony tomorrow. Sorry for being a deadbeat MS3, you will probably never see me unless you like to shadow doctors at Moffitt (you eager beaver you).

Ironically, as a first year, I always wondered why we didn't meet any MS3's or MS4's, apparently they were too busy to mingle with the first and second years. Also, we never get to attend any UCSF graduations, so there is a particular divide between MS1/2 and MS 3/4, that UCSF could probably remedy to some degree. Anyway, it's just funny that now I AM the shadowy MS3 whom you will never meet, and therefore assume that I am aloof and a little bit eccentric (ah, first non-impressions).

Enjoy medical school, and for goodness' sake, HAVE FUN this year and next year. Enjoy the pass/fail system and relax (you won't listen to me, but i'll say it anyway). Try to go to class. Eat the hashbrowns in the Moffiteria. Avoid the hospital. Do what you love. Hang out with friends and family. Don't worry about the Boards until perhaps Nov.-Dec. of your second year. Be nice to the MSP teachers and don't be (too) mean to the small group leaders. DON'T BUY ANY OF THE TEXTBOOKS ON THE LIST!! (except for Netter's and Blumenfeld, which you can buy in May). YOU NEVER USE THE TEXTBOOKS.

Good luck, medlings!


Nadia said...

Dear Stephanie, I am not a UCSF student, but I read your piece about women on Synapse and I wanted to offer a few assorted thoughts and references.

First of all, you note the controversy over Brizendine's book. Many have found that Brizendine's reference lists are tangential, irrelevent, contradictory, or ambiguous.

There is a body of research in psychology that suggests physiological factors like hormones and genes do likely impact cognition. i.e. studies of performance on cognitive tasks across the menstral cycle, studies of cognitive abilities and finger digit ratios, and literature on girls with a condition called CAH. Also, international tests often show the same sex differences across many countries.

That said, the issues are complicated, and with neural structures, it can be very difficult to find true relationships between anatomy, physiology, and chemistry and cognition, emotion, and behavior. So, it's important to tread carefully in looking at physical and behavioral differences.

Although some of the patterns you alluded were found (see Diane Halpern's 2000 taxonomy on cogntive differences) , I'm not sure that I agree with your approach to asking those questions. Cognitive Psychologist and former APA President Diane Halpern writes, "Differences are not deficiencies" and goes on to discuss ways to approach these questions thoughtfully.

See Halpern, Diane Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities (3rd edition 2000) and

for information about the differences

You might also be interested in the Spelke-Pinker debates on Edge.

Although there are reliable and sometimes substantial sex differences in some effects, Halpern and Sheri Berenbaum of Pennsylvania State University, say it's important to note they are not immutable. Nora Newcombe and Sheryl Sorby have found that spatial ability can be improved. (As have other researchers.)

I know that's assorted and probably doesn't provide the sort of answer you want, but I felt compelled to share my thoughts.

Stephanie said...

Dear Nadia,

Thank you for your interesting comment.

I'm not sure whether you are referring to an OpEd in Synapse last year or to a blog entry written 2 years ago, but it appears to me that we are essentially in agreement concerning the current research in gender differences: "it can be very difficult to find true relationships between anatomy, physiology, and chemistry and cognition, emotion, and behavior. So, it's important to tread carefully in looking at physical and behavioral differences."

In the Synapse OpEd, I wrote: "If there truly is a significant biological difference between the brains of men and women, then obviously it is our responsibility to research, investigate, explain and support our findings in a responsible manner."

It is unclear what you mean by the "patterns" that were alluded to or how you disagree with my "approach to asking those questions."

Thank you,

Nadia said...

I was referring to your article in Synapse.

In terms of patterns you alluded to, girls and women do usually do better than boys and men on some verbal tasks, men and boys do better on some mathematical and spatial tasks. But it doesn't bear out so categorically. Women and girls do better on writing tests, verbal fluency, and display a smaller but meaningful advantage on reading. The sexes are comparable on vocabulary and males display a small advantage on verbal analogies.
Boys and men do better on mathematical achievement tests. They do especially well on problem solving, but the sexes are comparable on mathematical calculation. Boys and men perform a lot better than girls and women on spatial tasks like mental rotation, going through a 3-D maze, and Piaget's Water Level task. On average, they also know significantly more about geography and politics.
I acknowledge that differences exist, and they have consequences. I do feel that there's really something to this idea that differences shouldn't be considered deficiencies. For example, you mentioned the idea of it maybe being more natural for men to go into math and science. Perhaps. Spatial abilities are highly relevant for success in science, and testosterone seems to be a factor in sex differences. It’s important to explain the job ratios today. But, girls and women get better grades or equal grades in math and science courses. And many perform well in competitions like the Science Talent Search and International Science and Engineering Fair.
The male performance on spatial tasks and mathematical reasoning tests is important in thinking about sex and scientific achievement. But should you come to the conclusion, it's more natural, without considering the fact that girls and women do well in school and in some science research competitions? And even if it's more natural, what if training in spatial ability could make a meaningful difference?
In one book, a developmental psychologist responded to the finding or disclosure that boys performed better on some standardized tests when girls did better in school, by asking if that meant that schools were biased against boys. The author of the book responded by saying that was a possibility, but went on to suggest that the contradiction could also be explained another way: the tests were biased against girls.
In terms of being responsible, I think we do agree, but I guess I should probably give you a couple of examples of what can go wrong. One review of Brizendine’s book opens with a situation where teenage girls have lost a soccer game and don’t talk about in the car. The author discusses how what she read in The Female Brain helps her see why they weren’t talking about their loss. The hormones in the teenage girl brain made bonding more important than dwelling on the defeat. Here is how one psychologist responded in a letter,” Jennifer Ackerman’s review stretches credulity beyond belief…Both the book and the review are the worst kind of popular-psychology overgeneralization of neurobiological findings about complex forms of human behavior. Psychology and neuroscience have strived to link neurophysiological functions with overt human behaviors. But with few exceptions, such as the temporal-lobe localization of speech, these connections are highly difficult to demonstrate because of so many intervening variables and the inherent complexity of the brain and of behavior…Ackerman’s opening example is simply absurd.”
Another reader who said it was important to acknowledge the profound impact of sex and hormones wrote, “The science is still young, and far from applicable to everyday situations (such as girls' reactions to losing a game, an example mentioned in the review).”
A psychologist on amazon said of Brizendine’s book that it “consistently confuses neural structure (brain) with psychological function (mind, mental performance, emotions, behavior). This is a huge error. The author is extraordinarily fond of citing functional gender differences. She'll talk about differences in verbal output, memory, eye contact, thoughts about sex, emotions, divorce initiation, aggression, chilhood behaviors, etc. As Cambridge Psychologist Melissa Hines said some of the connections the author appears to make have not yet been established.
Brizendine and others claimed women talked more and linked this to the brain. But it turned out to be wrong. In short, it’s an example of how brain differences really need to be understood, especially in terms of their relationship to behavior and cognition. (That’s not to suggest that some differences haven’t been detected. Some neuroimaging studies use different regions of their brain to do mathematics,)
Finally, another author Leonard Sax, used neuroscience to talk about differences so as to advocate same sex schools He suggested that the differences between boys and girls were so substantial that they would learn better separated. A group of researchers examining sex differences and the Larry Summers debate discussed single sex schooling and here is what they said,” None of the data regarding brain structure or function suggest that girls and boys learn differently or that either sex would benefit from single-sex schools, yet that is exactly the claim that is driving a rapid increase in such schools.”

There are definitely reliable and sometimes robust differences between men and women. A solid body of literature points to key physiological influences as being involved in some of them. But I hope researchers discuss this information to demonstrate that nature is a part of sex differences and should be considered, but also discuss caveats and limitations.