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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Teaching Climate Change

Last September, we announced that we are one of 200 British businesses that are pledging their support for the Your Life campaign, with the purpose of inspiring young people to study maths and physics as a gateway to exciting and wide-ranging careers. One of those pledges was to produce a series of downloadable materials highlighting current real-life research issues for use with the KS4 curriculum.

And now we're making it happen.

A cartoon showing a school class of polar bears learning about climate change, with a frozen Earth being heated over a fire.
Our first downloadable materials for teachers will be about Climate Change

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Male vs Female Brains

Women are from Venus and men are from Mars, or so we have long been told. There are obvious physical differences between the sexes, but do these disparities extend to our brains? And if there are sex differences to be found in the brain, are they there from before birth, or are they a product of our upbringing? As well as being interesting areas for scientific study, these questions open up some ethical conundrums - if we did find robust, biological sex differences in the brains of men and women, what would this mean for how we should treat the sexes, and how we should raise our children?

Artist's impression of the cerebrum, with the temporal lobe coloured
We all have one of these - but are men's and women's brains different?
Image credit: Anatomography, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp]

The first, and probably easiest, question to answer is whether there are physical differences in men's and women's brains. We know that males tend to have larger brains than females, and this has been confirmed by a recent meta-analysis[1]. But do these physical disparities correspond to a difference in ability, or function? Some have argued that larger brain volume suggests greater intelligence, but it is now widely accepted that total brain volume is not a very good indicator of intelligence - Einstein’s brain was actually found to be slightly smaller than average[2]. A criticism of many studies on brain volume is that they fail to take into account that women, on average, have smaller bodies than men - so it seems reasonable to expect their brains to also be smaller. However brain to body size ratio can’t account for the dissimilarities completely - the correlation between the two is not strong in humans, and boys’ brains remain bigger even at age 11-13, where their bodies are, on average, smaller[3].

As well as looking at the brain as a whole, researchers look at specific structures inside the brain to see if there is divergence there. The same meta-analysis found size differences in a huge number of structures in the brain, including the amygdala, which is involved in emotional processing and the hippocampus, which is important for memory. Again, these differences weren’t adjusted for the overall distinctions in size between men & women, but as the variations in size and connectivity differed by region it seems it is not just as simple as every area being bigger in men. Discrepancies have also been found in the percentage of grey matter and white matter in the brains of men & women[4].