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Open Access Mapping plasticity: Sex/gender and the changing brain

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There is a consensus in the neuroscientific literature that brains are either male or female, and that ‘brain sex’ is a fixed, immutable trait. Feminist critics have challenged this idea, raising questions, for example, about brain plasticity (the role of sociocultural factors in the emergence and endurance of brain structure and function). However, neuroscientific studies of sex/gender differences still rarely consider these factors. This paper discusses brain plasticity as a shared point of interest for the neurosciences and feminist theory. Plasticity arguments resonate strongly with longstanding feminist arguments about the interaction of nature and nurture, the embodiment of social practices, and the performative nature of gender. However, whether it is appropriate and productive for feminist theory to approach the gendered subject as a plastic, cerebral subject is up for discussion. This paper explores these different dimensions. I pay detailed attention to the concern that plasticity arguments can corroborate the idea of brain sex as effectively as they can undermine it. Depending on how broadly one defines plasticity, the focus of research can be on ‘the plasticity of sex differences’ or on ‘sex differences in plasticity’. I conclude that a traditional definition of plasticity, according to which the brain is largely stable, conserves the idea of brain sex. However, the alternative ‐ framing the brain as fundamentally and infinitely plastic ‐ also raises concerns.
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Keywords: brain plasticity; brain sex; feminist theory; neuroscience; sex/gender; sexuality

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Annelies Kleinherenbrink is a PhD candidate at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (University of Amsterdam). Her research engages with the role of plasticity arguments in discussions about the brain, sex/gender and sexuality.

Publication date: December 10, 2014

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  • Het Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies is het forum voor de wetenschappelijke problematisering van sekse in relatie tot andere vormen van discriminatie en uitsluiting zoals etniciteit, seksualiteit, klasse of leeftijd. Er worden artikelen in gepubliceerd over gendervraagstukken vanuit alle relevante disciplines die een wetenschappelijke bijdrage leveren aan debatten over gender en intersectionaliteit in Nederland en Vlaanderen. Het tijdschrift is een interdisciplinair medium op het kruispunt van maatschappij-, cultuur-, geestes-, gezondheids- en natuurwetenschappen. Het verschijnt vier keer per jaar en biedt wetenschappelijke artikelen en daarnaast ook interviews, boekrecensies, discussiedossiers en opiniërende artikelen in het Nederlands en Engels. Artikelen worden dubbelblind beoordeeld door externe deskundigen.

    The Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies (Journal of Gender Studies) is a Dutch language forum for the scientific problematisation of gender in relation to ethnicity, sexuality, class, and age. The journal aims to contribute to debates about gender and diversity in the Netherlands and Flanders. The journal is an interdisciplinary medium operating at the intersection of society, culture, the humanities, health and science. The editorial staff is open to articles about gender issues from different disciplines, and also accepts English articles. As well as publishing articles, the journal includes essays, columns (short topical and polemical articles), interviews, reviews, summaries of dissertations and conference reports. Articles are subjected to a double blind peer review process.
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