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Men’s brains/women’s brains and swearing in sign language. Or how sexism becomes entrenched through research and dodgy journalism. With help from Carly Simon, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane!

Date posted: Monday 29th June 2015

‘Wake Up, Shake Up‘ for the Woodstock Generation?

When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies/
Don’t you want somebody to love?’
Jefferson Airplane, ‘Somebody to Love’ at Woodstock, 1969

“How do I prepare when a girl asks to visit my bedroom for the first time?”

It was Spring 1975. I was sweet 17 and Roberta and I were on one of our regular long walks together. This question had been bugging me ever since our mutual friend, who we nicknamed ‘Grace’, said she wanted to have a look at my bedroom. Roberta and I had a ‘Platonic relationship’ where, according to her, we were ‘best friends and could explore each other’s minds, but that’s as far as it goes.’ This meant that we spent most weekends together; shopping, going to the cinema, hanging out with friends and invariably ending up in her bedroom, listening to records by The Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Eagles, Van Morrison and John Martyn. If we hadn’t seen each other during the day, we would spend ages chatting on the phone in the evening. This involved mildly teasing each other (but not flirting).

Roberta was a self-proclaimed expert on ‘what men need to know about women in order to have exciting and long-lasting relationships’. She was always quick to give me detailed advice on how to behave towards girls I fancied. Strangely, this advice never seemed to yield any positive results.

Looking back on those heady days, Roberta was a bit like Emmylou Harris: hugely talented, prone to wearing midi skirts and flicking her hair back, but a bit on the self-conscious and serious side.


And what about ‘Grace’? Well, we chose this nickname because she was just like Grace Slick, the lead singer with legendary San Francisco psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane. Like Ms Slick, she was assertive and straight-talking, and was often to be found in other people’s rooms in the early hours of the morning, ingesting large quantities of illegal substances. (Grace Slick notoriously got invited, (by mistake as it happens) to a garden party at the White House, hosted by President Richard Nixon. She planned to drop a tab of LSD into the President’s tea, but was thwarted at the last minute by an FBI agent who had been at Woodstock and recognised her.)

Grace had decided that she and I were going to be an item, but wanted to check out my bedroom first. This really freaked me out, because girls I asked out usually wanted the first date to take place in a public space, like the Wimpy café down the High Street, where I bought the drinks and burgers and they decided if I could walk them home (which was usually never).

So I guess you can empathise with my panic, and understand why I should go to Roberta for advice. As usual, her ideas were detailed, so I took extensive notes, which I still have:

Carly Simon: No Secrets

Carly Simon and James Taylor

Little Feat, Emmylou Harris and friends

To this day, I’m not entirely sure why me and Grace didn’t hit it off. She seemed very alarmed when, on entering my bedroom, I said, “Come and see the collection of mags I’ve got under my bed!”

Why did she shout, “What the hell is that?!” upon spying my ‘shrine to Carly Simon’?

Why did she look bored rigid by my album collection and me waxing lyrical about the amazing production values on The Doors’ eponymous first album?

And what possessed her, half-way through my detailed account of Lowell George’s slide technique, to phone her dad to ask him to come and collect her?

And why was her parting shot, flung at me as she slammed the front door, “You’re a typical man!”

Where is all this heading? Well, you may have come across the very popular idea that men’s brains and women’s brains are fundamentally different. This ‘fact’ has been used to explain why women can’t park a car, why men are fascinated by how things work and by finding out obscure facts, and why women are into friendships and feelings and caring for children. Men on the other hand, have a biological imperative, inherited from the Stone Age, to go around killing things (and each other) and collecting obscure objects (originally roots and berries, but now stamps and rare Bob Dylan recordings).

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, he is related to Sacha Baron-Cohen of Ali G and Bhorat fame), has apparently confirmed the truth about male and female differences. Professor Simon wrote a seminal paper on this subject where he introduced the concept that most women’s brains are hard-wired for empathy with other people, while most men are neurologically driven to collect facts and understand systems. In his words, men are ‘Systemisers’ while women are not. They are ‘Empathisers’. Of course, not all men are good at understanding systems, and not all women are good at being in touch with their feelings and sharing concern for others. 17% of each sex will differ from the norm in these respects, so that some women will have typically ‘male brains’ and some guys will be ‘typically female’.

Simon Baron-Cohen is an expert in autism, and was originally trying to explain why most children with autism are male and, from his data at least, many fathers of autistic children are engineers or have a male engineer relative. Many autistic children have a predisposition to be fascinated by how things work (or at least, in my experience, taking them apart, sometimes screw by screw), amassing facts and lacking empathy with other people. Part of Baron-Cohen’s research involved a questionnaire, which showed conclusively that male respondents preferred facts and understanding systems, rather than spending time finding out about other people’s feelings. Women respondents were interested in what makes other people tick, rather than wasting time finding out how a clock works.

Therefore, because children with autism are essentially ‘systemisers’, and so are a lot of men (and particularly engineers), we could draw the conclusion that autism is caused by some children being born with neurology that makes them more like men than others.

You can read about the Extreme Male Brain Theory of Autism here . If you do, or know the research in detail, you will know that I have been grossly unkind to these researchers into autism. They are prepared to ask difficult questions and come up with thought-provoking theories that attempt to answer them, which we can agree with or reject, as we choose.

However, as is often the case, some journalists got hold of the research and completely twisted its intentions and findings, in order to make copy. The BBC does this frequently on its news website. The Guardian and other ‘serious papers’ do the same, but use longer words and sentences. But really and truly, the apparently learned magazine Scientific American should have known better than to publish an article headed ‘Are Geeky Couples More Likely to have Kids with Autism?

Some men are systemisers, some women are too. That doesn’t mean that those men who are not that way inclined are ‘THAT way inclined’ or that women who are strong systemisers must in some way be ‘manly’. Systemising is a way of thinking, a way of seeing the world, and for some people it allows them to have a really good job. In some extreme cases, it’s an obsessive way of functioning, and would lead to a diagnosis of autism. But this does not mean that engineers are autistic, or at risk of having children with autism; merely that some men and women have chosen to allow their systemising to dominate their lives. Their lifestyles reflect this, including not bothering to focus on social relationships and how they bring up their children.

You can’t go round saying, that because some men are very strong on systems, then all male and female brains are different. In the same way you can’t suggest that all women are designed to be strong on empathy and socialising in order to look after children. However, some researchers are using these concepts to look into what type of thinking best suits someone (either male or female) to be attracted to study and work in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mechanics).

From my memory of things, Roberta was a tremendous ‘systemiser’, but also highly tuned into other people’s feelings- and how to manipulate them as well!!

So finally, here’s the link to swearing in sign language, which explains my thoughts on Scientific American’s take on ‘extreme male brains’

Swearing in Sign language. (Warning: This clip features swearing in sign language.)

And finally finally, after having criticised the BBC for being outrageously rubbish at describing research, here’s a brand new piece from them about whether or not empathy can be taught!

Take extreme care out there!


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6 responses to “Men’s brains/women’s brains and swearing in sign language. Or how sexism becomes entrenched through research and dodgy journalism. With help from Carly Simon, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane!”

  1. It’s so hot I’m not sure I can comment sensibly. I’m not complaining about the heat… so I’ll just say thanks and also that sometimes though just a a single ringing note from Lowell’s guitar plus his sparkplug wrench is all it needs to transcend almost anything . Don’t get me wrong I am of a certain age, but I’m not a classic rock kinda guy.
    But as Bonnie Raitt once so eloquently said “Lowell George, phew… wow.. he’s just.. you know…. it..”

    • Michael Jones says:

      That is so funny……. Personally I would say the same about Emmylou Harris and Carly Simon (‘s voices)..
      Great to have you back on board again!!
      PS If you are an Eagles fan, you may want to check out Disney’s ‘The Country Bears’, where Bonnie and one of the Eagles are listening to the Country Bears playing live, and Glen Frey says to Bonnie, ‘Man, these are way better than the Eagles!’
      Thanks to you and Simon for inspiring me to make the ‘systemiser’/autism/Little Feat connection. What next??
      I think Gilbert O’Sullivan and the flawed genius that is Leo Sayer need to be mentioned in some way: possibly to develop children’s love of dressing up in the ‘role play area’?

  2. Simon says:

    Some great stuff here Michael. Brave territory to write about and lovely videos.

    I had a thing about Carly Simon too. Funny but my first proper girlfriend was called Carly (and I’m Simon?!?!)

    You’re right about Emmylou being a bit stiff. A great singer of country ballads but she never could rock, even with the great Albert Lee (male brain straining to impress with expertise) driving things on with his ace guitar playing.

    Bless her, she tried to get it off on the wonderful Dixie Chicken but any rhythm on stage was exclusively coming from the band. What a band! Fabulous!

    Have you heard First Aid Kit’s wonderful song ‘Emmylou’?

    I love Grace, but she and the Airplane blew Woodstock big time. Probably their biggest gig ever. What a racket!

    Looking forward to the next blog. Always a treat.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Simon! Thanks for the reply and feedback. Airplane… Racket… Blew it? Well that must be a perfect case of beauty being in the ear of the beholder. The band seem pretty awesome to me! They played Altamont with the Stones later that year, and maybe it all turned ugly because the crowd thought Airplane were ‘rather disappointing’!
      Thanks for the link. All about Emmy and Gram Parsons, I think. I like Emmylou’s seriousness. She reminds me of people I have irked with who feel uncomfortable about being in public, but who nevertheless have loads to offer.
      I still want to write about Carly and her issues with self-image and how this had an impact on her stammering. And there’s a Sandy Denny to come!

      More soon!!

  3. 3 Emmy Lou Harris factoids: These are all true by the way
    1 she runs a home for abandoned cats in her house
    2 she is obsessed with baseball
    3 I waited outside the stage door after one of her gigs in Brighton
    In 1975….,.. To get James Burtons autograph… Never saw sight nor sound of either of them.
    4 ( I know I said 3 but this is just an opinion) she doesn’t ever need to “rock” as she is just…. Phew you know…, it….

    • Michael Jones says:

      Wow Tim! Emmylou collects stray cats, is obsessed with baseball and didn’t even come to the stage door to greet her adoring fan! Should we be concerned that a life as a country rocker has led her to the same netherworld as the blonde singer from Abba?

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