Tag : science

Reports trumpeting basic differences between male and female brains are biological determinism at its most trivial, says the science writer of the year.

As hardy perennials go, there is little to beat that science hacks’ favourite: the hard-wiring of male and female brains. For more than 30 years, I have seen a stream of tales about gender differences in brain structure under headlines that assure me that from birth men are innately more rational and better at map-reading than women, who are emotional, empathetic multi-taskers, useless at telling jokes. I am from Mars, apparently, while the ladies in my life are from Venus.

And there are no signs that this flow is drying up, with last week witnessing publication of a particularly lurid example of the genre. Writing in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia revealed they had used a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to show that the neurons in men’s brains are connected to each other in a very different way from neurons in women’s brains.

This point was even illustrated by the team, led by Professor Ragini Verma, with a helpful diagram. A male brain was depicted with its main connections – coloured blue, needless to say  – running from the front to the back. Connections within cranial hemispheres were strong, but connections between the two hemispheres were weak. By contrast, the female brain had thick connections running from side to side with strong links between the two hemispheres.

“These maps show us a stark difference in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks and women at others,” said Verma.

The response of the press was predictable. Once again scientists had “proved” that from birth men have brains which are hardwired to give us better spatial skills, to leave us bereft of empathy for others, and to make us run, like mascara, at the first hint of emotion. Equally, the team had provided an explanation for the “fact” that women cannot use corkscrews or park cars but can remember names and faces better than males. It is all written in our neurons at birth.

As I have said, I have read this sort of thing before. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t believe it now. It is biological determinism at its silly, trivial worst. Yes, men and women probably do have differently wired brains, but there is little convincing evidence to suggest these variations are caused by anything other than cultural factors. Males develop improved spatial skills not because of an innate superiority but because they are expected and encouraged to be strong at sport, which requires expertise at catching and throwing. Similarly, it is anticipated that girls will be more emotional and talkative, and so their verbal skills are emphasised by teachers and parents. As the years pass, these different lifestyles produce variations in brain wiring – which is a lot more plastic than most biological determinists realise. This possibility was simply not addressed by Verma and her team.

Equally, when gender differences are uncovered by researchers they are frequently found to be trivial, a point made by Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioural genetics at London’s Institute of Psychiatry, whose studies have found that a mere 3% of the variation in young children’s verbal development is due to their gender.  “If you map the distribution of scores for verbal skills of boys and of girls, you get two graphs that overlap so much you would need a very fine pencil indeed to show the difference between them. Yet people ignore this huge similarity between boys and girls and instead exaggerate wildly the tiny difference between them. It drives me wild.”

I should make it clear that Plomin made that remark three years ago when I last wrote about the issue of gender and brain wiring. It was not my first incursion, I should stress. Indeed,  I have returned to the subject – which is an intriguing, important one – on a number of occasions over the years as neurological studies have been hyped in the media, often by the scientists who carried them out. It has taken a great deal of effort by other researchers to put the issue in proper perspective.

A major problem is the lack of consistent work in the field, a point stressed to me in 2005 – during an earlier outbreak of brain-gender difference stories – by Professor Steve Jones, a geneticist at University College London, and author of Y: The Descent of Men. “Researching my book, I discovered there was no consensus at all about the science [of gender and brain structure],” he told me. “There were studies that said completely contradictory things about male and female brains. That means you can pick whatever study you like and build a thesis around it. The whole field is like that. It is very subjective. That doesn’t mean there are no differences between the brains of the sexes, but we should take care not to exaggerate them.”

Needless to say that is not what has happened over the years. Indeed, this has become a topic whose coverage has been typified mainly by flaky claims, wild hyperbole and sexism. It is all very depressing. The question is: why has this happened? Why is there such divergence in explanations for the differences in mental abilities that we observe in men and women? And why do so many people want to exaggerate them so badly?

The first issue is the easier to answer. The field suffers because it is bedevilled by its extraordinary complexity. The human brain is a vast, convoluted edifice and scientists are only now beginning to develop adequate tools to explore it. The use of diffusion tensor imaging by Verma’s team was an important breakthrough, it should be noted. The trouble is, once more, those involved were rash in their interpretations of their own work.

“This study contains some important data but it has been badly overhyped and the authors must take some of the blame,” says Professor Dorothy Bishop, of Oxford University. “They talk as if there is a typical male and a typical female brain – they even provide a diagram – but they ignore the fact that there is a great deal of variation within the sexes in terms of brain structure. You simply cannot say there is a male brain and a female brain.”

Even more critical is Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “The study’s main conclusions about possible cognitive differences between males and females are not supported by the findings of the study. A link between anatomical differences and cognitive functions should be demonstrated and the authors have not done so. They simply have no idea of how these differences in anatomy translate into cognitive attitudes. So the main conclusion of the study is purely speculative.”

The study is also unclear how differences in brain architecture between the sexes arose in the first place, a point raised by Michael Bloomfield of the MRC’s Clinical Science Centre. “An obvious possibility is that male hormones like testosterone and female hormones like oestrogen have different effects on the brain. A more subtle possibility is that bringing a child up in a particular gender could affect how our brains are wired.”

In fact, Verma’s results showed that the neuronal connectivity differences between the sexes increased with the age of her subjects. Such a finding is entirely consistent with the idea that cultural factors are driving changes in the brain’s wiring. The longer we live, the more our intellectual biases are exaggerated and intensified by our culture, with cumulative effects on our neurons. In other words, the intellectual differences we observe  between the sexes are not the result of different genetic birthrights but are a consequence of what we expect a boy or a girl to be.

Why so many people should be so desperate to ignore or obscure this fact is a very different issue. In the end, I suspect it depends on whether you believe our fates are sealed at birth or if you think that it is a key part of human nature to be able to display a plasticity in behaviour and in ways of thinking in the face of altered circumstance. My money is very much on the latter.


In their study, Verma and her colleagues, investigated the gender differences in brain connectivity in 949 individuals – 521 females and 428 males – aged between eight and 22 years. The technique they used is known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a water-based imaging technology that can trace and highlight the fibre pathways that connect the different regions of the brain, laying the foundation for a structural connectome or network of the whole brain. These studies revealed a typical pattern, claim Verma and her team: men had stronger links between neurons within their cranial hemispheres while women had stronger links between the two hemispheres, a difference that the scientists claimed was crucial in explaining difference in the behaviour of men and women.

But the technique has been criticised. “DTI provides only indirect measures of structural connectivity and is, therefore, different from the well validated microscopic techniques that show the real anatomy of axonal connections,” says Marco Catani, of London’s Institute of Psychiatry. “Images of the brain derived from diffusion tensor MRI should not be equated to real connections and results should always be interpreted with extreme caution.”This point is backed by Prof Heidi Johansen-Berg, of Oxford University, who attacked the idea that brain connections should be considered as hard-wired. “Connections can change throughout life, in response to experience and learning. As far as I can tell, the authors have not directly related these differences in brain connections to differences in behaviour. It is a huge leap to extrapolate from anatomical differences to try to explain behavioural variation between the sexes. The brain regions that have been highlighted are involved in many different functions.”

The recent study which “confirms” the differences between male and female brains has been roundly criticised by neuroscientists. However, there are some genuine differences that cannot be denied.

Unless you’ve been trapped in a lead-lined sensory-deprivation chamber this week, you’ve probably heard about the recent study that “confirms” the differences between the brains of men and women. Confirmed is in inverted commas because it’s very easy to “confirm” even the most surreal of notions with brain imaging techniques. As is often the case with scientific findings that get massive media attention, the science behind said “findings” is far from perfect. The study itself has been taken apart by the neuroscience community like a juicy lamb shank thrown to a tank of rarely-fed piranhas.

I won’t attempt to critique the paper here; there are plenty of people who have done that better. No, there is a lot of data already out there on the subject of male and female brains. However, the media coverage this study received implies that there is a great deal of public interest in knowing about the real differences between the brains of men and women. So what follows is a basic rundown of the more definite differences between the brains of men and women.


Male and female brains actually differ right down at the genetic level in quite a drastic way. Studies reveal that typically EVERY CELL in the male brain contains a Y chromosome. Quite alarmingly, female brains usually contain no Y chromosomes at all! This lack of a Y chromosome has many obvious physical effects, but most women still manage to lead normal, cognitively-unimpaired lives despite this clear deficit in the very DNA of their brains. Research into how they manage this is ongoing.


One startling difference between male and female brains is where they are found. It may surprise many, but male brains are found almost exclusively inside male skulls, whereas female brains are found only inside female skulls! Such an extreme bias in brain-skull association can’t possibly be due to coincidence. The fact that male and female skulls are also different and perfectly sized to house their associated brains is even more unlikely. Explain that with your so-called science, Richard Dawkins!


As previously mentioned, there is an established size difference between male and female brains. Male brains tend to be bigger overall than female ones. This is also true for male legs, torsos and skeletons in general. Human men generally tend to be bigger than women, and this is reflected in brain size. Some argue that this means men are more intelligent than women. Using that same logic, human beings are intellectually inferior to elephants and sperm whales. Certain people may scoff at this very notion. “You never see elephants or sperm whales queuing for the latest version of the iPhone!” the might say, which probably doesn’t prove the point they think it does. Sperm whales and elephants also never publicly criticise statements made by figments of their imagination, so they’re doing well overall.


Male and female brains differ in the connections they form. Most notably, the male brain is generally connected to a penis by various involved systems. The female brain lacks this connection and is instead linked to a vagina via a complex system of associations. The male brain-penis association seems to be more straightforward than the female brain-vagina one, but that may be due to the fact that the latter has a lot more bilge written about it.


It is generally believed that the male brain is better able to tolerate pain than the female one. However, the female brain is able to raise tolerance to pain when engaging in the process of ejecting a human from the pelvic regions. Thus far, no male brain has ever been recorded doing this.


Observational studies have shown that the male brain is hardwired to be paid more, occupy more powerful roles and positions, and be more inclined to kill things randomly, whereas the female brain is hardwired to get more harassment and oppression, develop worrying obsessions with physical appearance and to care more about other humans and sometimes kittens.

Or, and this may seem controversial to many but it’s worth considering, it could be that the human brain develops in accordance to what it experiences, and things it experiences and is made to do more often are reflected in the sorts of connections that develop. This would suggest that there aren’t actually any marked differences between male and female brains. However, this would mean that there is no scientific basis for all of our stereotypes and prejudices about what certain sexes should/shouldn’t do and they all stem from irrational or unpleasant cultural influences that haven’t gone away yet, forcing us to admit to ourselves that our preconceived notions about certain sexes or genders are just self-fulfilling clichés with no logical basis, potentially threatening our beliefs, our positions and even our identity.

And we can’t have that, can we.

Dean Burnett has a male brain that probably isn’t working as it should, as demonstrated by his Twitter feed, @garwboy

Differences in the way the brains of men and women are wired helps to explain   why men are better at navigating while women can multitask.

It is something that men and women have both long suspected – their brains are   wired differently.

New research has confirmed that men’s brains appear to be configured to   coordinate actions with their senses.

Women’s brains, however, are set up to have better memories, to find   multi-tasking easier and to be better at gauging social situations.

The results seem to help shed light on why men are considered better at things   like navigating, parking cars and throwing balls while women are credited   with being better at multi-tasking, are more intuitive socially, and tend to   remember events like anniversaries.

The study, which analysed the brain structures of nearly 1,000 people, found   that men’s brains tend to have more connections within each side of the   brain and tend to run between the back and front.

Women on the other hand had more connections between the left and right side   of their brain.

The brains of men also contained more nerve fibres, while women had a greater   proportion of “grey matter”

brain graphs

Brain networks showing significantly increased intra-hemispheric connectivity in males (Upper) and inter-hemispheric connectivity in females (Lower). Intra-hemispheric connections are shown in blue, and inter- hemispheric connections are shown in orange. (PNAS)

The different patterns in the brains of men and women go some way towards   explaining the differences in behaviour and skills seen in men and women,   according to the researchers.

They claim that greater connectivity within a brain hemisphere, as is seen in   men, links the senses to the control of muscles.

More connections between the hemispheres of the brain, like those seen in   women, are better for analytical reasoning, social understanding and memory.

Tests on the volunteers taking part showed that women outperformed men in   attention tests, remembering faces and words, and social interactions.

Men, however, were better at processing spatial information about their   surroundings, controlling their movements and had faster reaction times.

Dr Ragina Verma, one of the researchers behind the study at the University of   Pennsylvania, said: “These maps show us a stark difference – and   complementarity – in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide   a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at   others.”

Scientists have been using new types of neuroimaging in a bid to build   up new maps, known as connectomes, of how neurons in the brain since   2009.

The latest study, which is published in the journal Proceedings   of the National Academy of Sciences, examined brain scans of 949   people aged between eight and 22 years old.

The scientists used a form of brain scan known as diffusion tensor imaging to   map neural connections in the brain.

Few differences between the sexes were seen in children younger than 13, the   scientists found.

However, they became pronounced in adolescents aged 14 to 17 and older young   adults.

One particular brain area, the cerebellum, displayed an opposite wiring   pattern, with more connectivity between hemispheres in men and more within   hemispheres in women.

Part of the so-called “reptilian” hind-brain, the cerebellum is the   most ancient brain region and controls muscle movement, co-ordination, and   balance.

“It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really   are,” said Dr. Ruben Gur.

“Detailed connectome maps of the brain will not only help us better   understand the differences between how men and women think, but it will also   give us more insight into the roots of neurological disorders, which are   often sex related.”

By  at the Telegraph UK

Are children today really going through puberty earlier?

In 1977, hundreds of young Italian boys and girls attending a school near Milan suddenly began growing breasts. A subsequent investigation published in the Lancet suggested that contaminated beef and poultry were the likely cause. A decade earlier, another outbreak of early puberty in seven young kids in California had been traced to a tuberculosis drug that was accidently laced with estrogen-like compounds. In a 2006 piece for the New York Times—which, incidentally, was embellished for an episode of House —I described the case of a brother and sister who began growing pubic hair before reaching kindergarten. It turned out their father was secretly applying a high-potency testosterone cream purchased from an Internet pharmacy, for supposed cosmetic and sexual performance benefits, and the cream was rubbing off onto his kids from normal daily contact.

As with infections or chemical spills, early puberty can occur in small outbreaks. But can it also happen on a larger, population-wide scale? Recently, a drumbeat of scientific publications have speculated that children today undergo puberty earlier than in decades past, spurring worry about pervasive environmental triggers like bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, and obesity.

But a closer look at the data suggests that fears about early puberty may be misplaced.

The concerns about widespread early puberty began in the 1990s, when a North Carolina physician assistant named Marcia Herman-Giddens wondered why many 7- and 8-year old girls appeared to be developing breasts. She organized a study in which 225 pediatricians graded the maturity of young girls’ breasts and pubic areas. In a controversial 1997 Pediatrics paper, she concluded that puberty occurred earlier than in previously reported federal health studies from the 1960s.

Last year, Danish researchers compared data taken from girls from 2006 to 2008 to another cohort from 1991 to 1993 and also found the breast and pubic hair development was now occurring earlier by about one year. And in a well-publicized study released earlier this month, a team led by Frank Biro of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital reported that American girls examined between 2004 and 2006 appeared to undergo puberty even earlier than reported by Herman-Giddens, prompting fears that the trend was accelerating.

Is it really possible that the process of human maturation could be changing rapidly? Identifying the start of puberty is very subjective and many studies showing earlier puberty, particularly those that focus on breast development, can be flawed and misleading. The key is to find a more reliable marker of puberty.

Thankfully, there is one.

The precise trigger for sexual maturation is unknown, but sometime during childhood, a grape-sized area of the brain called the hypothalamus decides one night that it’s time to grow up. Beginning that night, the hypothalamus periodically drops a bit of a hormone called GnRH just onto the pea-sized pituitary gland, rousing it from its lifelong slumber.

The pituitary then secretes its own hormones into the circulation, ultimately activating the adrenal glands and ovaries (which make lots of estrogen) or testes (which make lots of testosterone). In girls, the first sign of puberty is typically a slight budding of the breast; in boys, it’s a mild enlargement of the testicles. Over the next years, other changes arrive: pubic and underarm hair, voice deepening, the adolescent growth spurt, acne, menstruation or semen production, and so on.

With no objective blood test or scan, most experts consider breast budding and testicular growth the hallmarks of puberty’s beginning. Unfortunately, those measures are very subjective—particularly for male children. Pediatricians guess the size of a boy’s testicles by touch and comparison to a rosary-like string of balls called an orchidometer, which is not very accurate.

As a result, most studies of early puberty focus on girls—but those assessments aren’t much better. Herman-Giddens’ 1997 study relied only on visual inspection by hundreds of different pediatricians trained in different programs, and not on actually feeling systematically for the small, firm masses that typify breast buds. That might lead obese kids to be prematurely termed pubertal.

There is a much clearer and defined marker of puberty: the age of a girl’s first period, or menarche. If puberty is occurring earlier, one would think menarche should also, since the process responds to the same cascade of hormones. But in the past 40 years, there hasn’t been any real change in age of menarche, which remains at just over 12 years. Additionally, no researcher has shown any objective change in the timing of adolescent growth spurts. In 2008, an international group of endocrinologists and other experts led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found little agreement that puberty was happening much earlier.

Perhaps researchers seeing widespread precocious puberty are just noticing breast development earlier—looking harder at normal bodies. It would follow that today’s puberty would seem to take longer than in previous decades. That’s precisely the case. (Epidemiologists call this “lead-time bias.”)

It’s possible that obesity might correlate with earlier puberty in some girls (oddly, fat boys appear to have later puberty than other boys), though the population-wide effect is still imperceptible by objective measures. And there are plenty of other reasons to worry about toxins like BPA or phthalates.

But in the end, the epidemic of earlier and earlier puberty is a myth that the media love and certain researchers continue to propagate. The tale’s promotion doesn’t always depend on data. Instead, worries about earlier physical maturation in girls sublimate and propel concerns about society’s sexualization of young girls, whether by provocative dance routines or revealing clothing. Those topics certainly get people talking. Unfortunately, any solutions are unlikely to come from the labs of our nation’s endocrinologists.

Want to be the next superhero? Aim for a career in science and technology. Natalie Portman and Marvel Comics have teamed up to start the Ultimate Mentor Adventure, a program for high school girls interested in STEM programs. Portman was moved to participate after acting as an astrophysicist, Jane Foster, in the movie Thor and its sequel. The girls who are selected will be paired with a mentor in the science field and will participate in behind-the-scenes events. Forms and videos can be submitted until October 20. Instructions are available on Disney’s site.

via NerdApproved

The question almost took down Lawrence Summers: why are there so few women in math and science? The answer could be as simple as the lack of encouragement women receive from childhood on, according to The New York Times magazine. Look at this way: not only are math and science not really seen as “cool” for kids, but also women who do go into math and science are often told to give up when the going gets tough. The masculine atmosphere and the lack of female support can cause women to give up math and science all together. And then when women are applying to the cutthroat programs, they face that age-old gender discrimination. In one particularly telling example, a group of researchers were given the exact same resumes for a John and Jennifer and told to rank them, with John coming up a point higher in every category except likability and with a starting salary recommendation nearly $5,000 more. “I’ve thought for a long time that understanding this implicit bias is critical,” said Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale.

via New York Times

There are countless articles and guides online that instruct men on the ideal way to chat up and eventually sleep with women, but so far none of them has actually incorporated the science behind attraction and mating. Until now.

It’s a sad fact, but women lack free will. Although they appear as complex and individual as any male (often much more so), it seems women are slaves to inherent biological “programming” which means they will be physically intimate with any man who employs a specific set of behaviours and phrases. This claim may seem far-fetched, but it is a widely held belief. A Google search for “how to pick up women” produces 725m results. In contrast, a Google search for “funny cats” produces 179m results. Remember, this is the internet.

But the thing about these guides to picking up women is that, despite the vast number of them and the dedicated researchers, known as pickup artists, looking into them, very few utilise legitimate science. That’s where I come in.

Men are always saying to me “Dean, you’re married; how the hell did that happen?”, but I can read between the lines and see what they really mean. I understand; it can’t be easy asking for relationship advice from someone as successful, handsome and self-aware as I am.

I’ve never been part of the dating game and have never attempted to chat up an unfamiliar woman, but being a straight white male with a media platform means I’m allowed to speak with authority about groups and communities I have no involvement with. So, based on established scientific principles, here are a few techniques (or “moves”) that men can use that are almost certain to effectively woo any woman.

The skinner

Named for the discoverer of operant conditioning, this potentially-sinister-sounding technique involves providing a reward whenever a woman you find attractive displays positive behaviour towards you. This will cause her to associate this behaviour with reward, and engage in it more often, thus increasing her favourable actions toward you.

Typically, the reward you use should be a pleasant foodstuff such as sweets or chocolate. However, you shouldn’t make your actions too obvious, or any positive association could be neutralised by suspicion or doubt. To prevent this, you should visibly provide these positive rewards to others. Ideally, do this with children, to demonstrate your willingness to engage with infants and triggering further positive associations with you via the female caring instinct. You will need to keep a large supply of rewards on your person, so a large coat with many pockets is advised.

It’s well known that if there’s one thing women can’t resist, it’s a man in a long coat offering sweets to children he doesn’t know.

The bird of paradise

Human society seems to have decided that it is women who should be more colourful, exotic or elaborate in appearance. Increase your chances of attracting a woman by turning this arrangement on its head and following the example of some of the most famous mating tactics in nature, those of the birds of paradise.

To attempt the “bird of paradise”, a man should dress as colourfully and elaborately as he can. Hawaiian shirts, cravats novelty hats, clown shoes, cartoon boxer shorts worn over trousers; if you’ve got them, wear them. If you haven’t got them, get them, and then wear them, all at once.

Then learn some elaborate dance, like tap or breakdancing, or any combination thereof.

Then seek out women in bank queues, bus stops, self-service checkouts, places where her own attire won’t be especially elaborate. Also, surprise is especially important when making an impression.

Seek out a suitable female in these locations then present yourself to her in your outfit and doing your dance. The best thing about this approach is no words are needed, just actions – they’ll tell a woman all she needs to know. Even in a worst-case scenario, you might meet a cute psychiatric nurse.

The Darwin

As Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution have shown, mate selection is often based on desirable genes. A lot of mating behaviour seems to have a genetic basis, and many of the traits that make up a species can be traced back to sexual selection. This results in some creatures going to extreme lengths to demonstrate the quality of their genes, such as the Peacock’s ridiculous tail.

Using the Darwin move, you can skip the hard work. Get a DNA test, get your results, carefully edit any parts that imply negative genetic traits, print the information, then staple it to your forehead. Now approach any woman you have set your sights on. She can see directly how healthy your genes are, and also that you have an impressively high pain threshold for when duelling with other males, which is likely to be necessary when wandering pubs with a DNA test stapled to your face.

The prokaryote

If attracting a female mate seems to complex and difficult, why not try reproducing via direct cell division in the manner of prokaryotes? Admittedly, most humans hardly ever essentially clone themselves by dividing right down the middle and have both halves form a new whole, but it’s a process that’s been used for about 3.8bn years, so how hard can it be?

The vertical hoist

One of the more effective ways of picking up a woman is finding a willing woman and, while holding her firmly in a manner that allows you to retain balance, exert an upward force that exceeds the force created by her own weight in kilogrammes times acceleration due to Earth’s gravity. You can do this with your own body or via some winch and pulley system.

You may think this is an overly literal interpretation of the term “pick up a woman”, but if you’ve read this and taken it seriously then I’m afraid you lose the right to criticise on those grounds.

But if you’re a man reading this and any of these techniques strike you as good ideas, please do try using them. Odds are, it’s probably for the best that you don’t reproduce.

• Dean Burnett is always happy to dispense relationship and other advice on Twitter, @garwboy

Invisible women of science – now appearing at the Royal Society

Scientists, an exhibition opening on Monday at the Royal Society as part of its Summer Science Exhibition, raises the profile of accomplished women scientists.

Women in science have an image problem. It is not so much deciding whether they should aspire to the hard image of being a scientist or the soft image of being feminine, it is the more serious problem of invisibility. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our august institutions, our imposing portrait galleries and grand museums.  There is a dearth of dignified portraits of women scientists produced by distinguished artists.

There are historical reasons for this. In the Royal Society’s buildings there are many portraits of great scientists, mainly donated, and many portraits of past presidents, usually commissioned. It is not surprising that there are few portraits of women since women have only been admitted as Fellows since 1945. The exhibition, simply called “Scientists”, gives an opportunity to show them off.  This exhibition, part of the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition and one of the many activities it is undertaking to promote and increase diversity both at the society and within the scientific community, includes loans of works and, for the first time, commissioned drawings.

Preparing for this exhibition made it strikingly clear that there is a void in representations of women in science. We particularly lack them in traditional forms where imaginative thought, sitting sessions and artistic patience is needed to accomplish something more than simply a likeness. But we also lack them in contemporary media, such as inspiring installations or computer art.

Perhaps the time has come to take some steps towards a change. Why should only dead scientists and ex-presidents be represented? Why only older people? It seemed the right moment to commission some drawings of young but already accomplished women scientists. Their presence on the walls of the Royal Society will certainly be an exclusive and hopefully refreshing innovation.

Garry Kennard is an artist who has long been making links between science and art. He undertook to produce the four pen-and-ink portraits, finding subjects in the Royal Society’s university research fellows and Rosalind Franklin prizewinners. We hope that the resulting studies are a foretaste of a future where fine art portraits of young scientists are seen more often.  We have no idea what a critical mass of portraits of present day scientists would do to our perception of this community, nor do we know what the effects of seeing more portraits of women scientists might be.

What does science say? Do portraits of women have a measurable influence on what people do? Researchers at the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland, pursued this question with an experiment. They asked 149 students to give a political speech in front of a mixed audience in an immersive virtual reality environment. The speakers were randomly assigned one of four rooms in which to give their speech: facing a plain wall, or a wall with the projected image of Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, or Angela Merkel. No further reference was made to the portraits.

Previous work suggested that men would speak longer than women in this sort of situation. This was found again in the blank wall condition. But there was a subtle portrait effect and this was found only for the young women. Women talked significantly longer in the presence of the portrait of a female leader.

Interestingly, the presence of a picture of a female leader gave women a distinct boost. The same pattern was found when outside observers had to judge how good the speeches were. In addition, the women speakers themselves evaluated their performance more positively.

As scientists we have to be scrupulous about not over-interpreting results. Even if replicated, the finding does not mean that the mere presence of pictures of women leaders is enough, or even necessary, to boost young women’s performance and self-evaluation. There are many other factors that play a role in women’s success as leaders.

The presence of portraits of senior women may merely be a “prime”, that is, one of many cues present in the environment that unconsciously bias our perception and behaviour in certain directions.  The effectiveness of such cues has been amply demonstrated and, conversely, there are cues that act as a “stereotype threat“. So, for example, telling girls that boys do better at mathematics, depresses performance on a subsequent maths test.

However, there is also a “stereotype lift”, and it may be delivered by portraits of eminent women. Such a lift, however subtle, is very welcome. I hope that at least some visitors to the exhibition will experience it.

Uta Frith is a fellow of the Royal Society and a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology, University College London