Mapping the Mind with Rita Carter

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Medical journalist Rita Carter will discuss how our personalities reflect the biological mechanisms underlying thought and emotion.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live. Today we are discussing "Mapping the Mind," with Rita Carter.

Rita Carter, a distinguished English medical journalist, is the co-author of Mapping the Mind. For the past ten years she has been a medical and science writer. She has contributed to a wide range of newspapers and magazines, including the Independent, New Scientist, Daily Mail and Telegraph. She was twice awarded the Medical journalists' Association prize for outstanding contribution to medical journalism.

If you would like to ask Rita a question, please type /ask followed by your question (e.g. "/ask how are you?")

Rita, welcome to WebMD Live.

Al_Pavy_WebMD: What motivated you to write Mapping the Mind?

Carter: I became fascinated in the new science of the brain about ten years ago when you first started to see those little PET and fMRI scans which started to appear in the newspapers occasionally. They are little pictures of the brain's activity when people are doing particular things, like thinking a sad thought or doing a particular mental task like adding up figures. It seemeD to me that these brain scans were a revolutionary thing because for the first time, it was possible to actually look inside a working, living brain and see what it was doing and how it worked instead of having to guess what was happening in the brain by way people behaved. That was all we had to go on before that. As these pictures started to come out of the brain laboratories, they were putting out little snippets of information but I could find no one who was putting them together like a jigsaw to make a big picture. I started to collect these bits of information and realized a picture was starting to emerge, a new type of view of the brain. Nobody else had written the book. I thought I would write it myself.

Moderator: Do you have a medical background?

Carter: No. Everyone asks me this and assumes that I have some sort of scientific or medical background. In fact, I'm a journalist, a medical and scientific journalist and I think it is an advantage because what happens when you get onto technical subjects like the brain is that people who are highly qualified scientists get so used to technical jargon that they forget that most people don't know what the terms mean. Because my background as a journalist is explaining technical things to people without the background, it helps not to be over-qualified myself because I automatically have to find out what these terms mean and translate them for myself before I write about them. There is no danger that my stuff becomes jargon heavy.

Al_Pavy_WebMD: What is the difference between men's and women's brains?

Carter: This is very controversial. It is at the moment, rather politically incorrect to talk about these things, it seems. We have a strange situation in which scientists seem to be very reluctant to carry out the work that would answer that question because I think they are frightened of what they might find. They did not want to be accused of sexism. At the moment, they can legitimately say that there is very little data on this subject. Of course, the reason there is so little data is because they do not want to go out and get it. However, there have been a number of studies that have demonstrated distinct differences in male and female brains. One of them is in simple anatomy. The brain, like the rest of the body, is molded largely before birth by the action of hormones in the uterus. Male fetuses get exposed to much more testosterone and brain tissue is very sensitive to testosterone. The hormone actually molds the brain of a male to make it anatomically different in small but important ways from that of a female. One way is that it kills off some of the connections between various bits of the brain. This means that the male brain is less integrated. There are fewer neuro connections between the two hemispheres. This means that less information flows between the two sides of the brain. These differences are small but in a large population sample, they become significant. The result of this particular difference is that it makes men and women treat problems in a rather different way. Because men's brains are more localized, if they are asked to do a problem, they will bring to bear on that problem very precise and localized brain skills. For example, if they are asked to do a complicated problem involving mathematics, they will just use that bit of the brain which has evolved to do mathematics. Women might use the visual part of their brain to visualize the problem or will pull on memories to help them solve the problem. They have a more creative or lateral way of thinking whereas men tend to be more incisive and logical. These are very small differences. You can only discover them when you start to do experiments using large numbers of people. The differences between the sexes are much smaller than the differences between two individuals but they are real. There is no doubt about that. There also seem to be differences between the emotional brain functions of men and women. Again, because women's brains seem to have more lateral connections, if a memory arises in a woman's brain, it is more likely to produce an emotional reaction because the connections will go into the emotional areas of the brain whereas a man might not make those connections. These differences are amplified, I think, by the culture that we live in. It is probably not true to say that the observed differences between men and women, that is the conventional, stereotypical things about the sexes, are entirely due to biological reasons. I do believe that they are at the root of them.


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