Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pulling Teeth and Weighing Brains

"Early brain scientists, using the cutting-edge techniques of the time, busily filled empty skulls with pearl barley, carefully categorized head shape using tape measures and devoted large portions of careers to the weighing of brains. Infamously, they proposed that women’s intellectual inferiority stemmed from their smaller and lighter brains, a phenomenon that came to be widely known among the Victorian public as ‘the missing five ounces of the female brain.'"

This passage in Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine could easily be a storyline from The Knick, currently my favorite TV show. Steven Soderbergh's vision of a hospital in early 1900s New York is both modern and beautifully (mostly) historically accurate. And after spending too much time thinking about a current book on the "medically proven" differences between male and female brains (Why Gender Matters) and then beginning to read a compelling counterargument (Delusions of Gender), The Knick's depiction of what passed for medicine in 1903 feels almost uncomfortably relevant.

A perfect example: Dr. Gallinger's wife is sent to an insane asylum, supposedly one of the best. (After her baby dies, she loses her mind. Her husband's solution is to adopt another baby, and of course, in a delusional state, she kills it.) John Hodgeman plays a psychiatrist with revolutionary treatments for mental illness. He believes mental illness is caused by infections, specifically in a person's teeth. So when Gallinger comes to the asylum to visit his wife for the first time, she greets him with a toothless grin. The psychiatrist then informs Gallinger that he plans to remove her tonsils and spleen as well. This insanity was considered sound medicine.

While I was deeply unsettled by the teeth pulling, what surprises me is how little we've learned about the brain since then. We still have only a vague understanding of how to treat mental illness. The medications we use affect the brain in ways doctors don't fully understand--which is why a person with mental health issues may have to try several different types of medication before finding one (or more than one) that works. Doctors have made so many amazing advancements in so many areas that we begin to forget they still have mysteries to solve.

"Even the untrained twenty-first-century layperson can see that [weighing brains instead of measuring skulls] brought scientists only a little closer to understanding the mystery of how brain cells create the engine of the mind, and can sense the unfortunate hastiness of the conclusion that women’s cognitive inferiority to men could be weighed in ounces. It may seem like the same sort of prejudice couldn’t possibly creep into the contemporary debate because now we are all so enlightened; perhaps even … overenlightened? Writers who argue that there are hardwired differences between the sexes that account for the gender status quo often like to position themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness. Yet claims of ‘essential differences’ between the two sexes simply reflect--and give scientific authority to--what I suspect is really a majority opinion. If history tells us anything, it is to take a second, closer look at our society and our science."

Coming up: Will I actually finally write about the worst book I've ever read? Or will I just continue to stew in my annoyance? Will I find the time to finish reviews of one of the great children's books with a female lead and one of the new children's books that has captured my heart? Find out next time on Oh, The Iron Man. (And I promise next time will come sooner rather than later.)

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