, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 217–230 | Cite as

Neuroethics, Gender and the Response to Difference

  • Deboleena RoyEmail author
Original Paper


This paper examines how the new field of neuroethics is responding to the old problem of difference, particularly to those ideas of biological difference emerging from neuroimaging research that purports to further delineate our understanding of sex and/or gender differences in the brain. As the field develops, it is important to ask what is new about neuroethics compared to bioethics in this regard, and whether the concept of difference is being problematized within broader contexts of power and representation. As a feminist science studies scholar trained in the neurosciences, it seems logical to me that, as a growing field, neuroethics should reach out to the rich bodies of scholarship on the history of medicine, feminist theory and feminist bioethics while attempting to approach discussions of sex, gender and sexuality differences in the brain. What is also clear to me is that feminist scholars need to learn how to engage with neuroimaging studies on sex, gender and sexuality not just to critique, but also to productively contribute to neuroscientific research. The field of neuroethics can potentially provide the appropriate forum for this interdisciplinary engagement and create opportunities for shared perplexity. I suggest three possible points of departure for creating this shared perplexity, namely (i) is difference being measured in the study for the purpose of understanding difference in and of itself, or for the purpose of division?; (ii) is there an appreciation for biological complexity?; and (iii) is it assumed that structural differences can be conveniently translated into functional differences?


Sex Gender Difference Neuroimaging Ontology Epistemology Materiality Feminist theory Feminist ethics Feminist science studies 



I would like to the thank the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University for support during my sabbatical year during which time I conducted some of the research for this paper and to the faculty research fellows for their comments and feedback on an earlier version of this work. I would also like to thank Anelis Kaiser and Isabelle Dussauge for organizing the “NeuroGenderings: Critical Studies of the Sexed Brain” conference held at Uppsala University in early 2010 and for inviting me to present portions of this article as a keynote address.


  1. 1.
    Farah, M.J., and P.R. Wolpe. 2004. Monitoring and manipulating brain function: new neuroscience technologies and their ethical implications. The Hastings Center Report 34(3): 35–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 2.
    Rees, D., and S. Rose (eds.). 2004. The new brain sciences: Perils and prospects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Rose, S. 2005. The 21st century brain. London: Jonathan Cape.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Rose, S. 2006. The future of the brain: The promise and the perils of tomorrow’s neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Gould, S.J. 1996. The mismeasure of man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Levy, N. 2007. Neuroethics: Challenges for the 21st century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    Shildrick, M. 1997. Leaky bodies and boundaries: Feminism, postmodernism and (bio)ethics. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Darnovsky, Marcy. 2007. Watson as wake-up call: When genetics endorses a new eugenics. (accessed on March 10, 2009).
  9. 9.
    Radstake, M. and B. Penders. 2007. Inside Genomics: The Interdisciplinary Faces of ELSA. Available from
  10. 10.
    Illes, J., R. De Vries, M.K. Cho, and Schraedley-Desmond. 2006. ELSI priorities for brain imaging. The American Journal of Bioethics 6(2): W24–W31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 11.
    Weiner, J. 2000. Time, love, memory: a great biologist and his quest for the origins of behavior. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Fortun, M. 2005. For an ethics of promising, or: a few kind words about James Watson. New Genetics and Society 24(2): 157–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 13.
    James Watson’s Legacy. 2007. Center for Genetics and Society. Available from
  14. 14.
    Stengers, I. 2000. Another look: relearning to laugh. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy 15(4): 41–54.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Haraway, D. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_ Oncomouse™: Feminism and technoscience. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Wilson, E. 2005. Psychosomatic: Feminism and the neurological body. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Vidal, F. 2009. Brainhood, anthropological figure of modernity. History of the Human Sciences 22(1): 5–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 19.
    Bleier, R. 1984. Science and gender: A critique of biology and its theories on women. New York: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Fausto-Sterling, A. 1985. Myths of gender: Biological theories about women and men. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Oudshoorn, N. 1994. Beyond the natural body: An archeology of sex hormones. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 23.
    van den Wijngaard, M. 1997. Reinventing the sexes: The biomedical construction of femininity and masculinity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Rogers, L. 2001. Sexing the Brain. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Rose, H. 2004. Consciousness and the limits of neurobiology. In The new brain sciences: Perils and prospects, ed. D. Rees and S. Rose. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Chalfin, M., E. Murphy, and K.A. Karkazis. 2008. Women’s neuroethics? Why sex matters for neuroethics. The American Journal of Bioethics 8(1): 1–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 27.
    Illes, J. 2008. Women’s neuroethics? Why sex matters for neuroethics (comment). The American Journal of Bioethics 8(1): 1–2.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Fine, C. 2008. Will working mothers’ brains explode? The popular new genre of neurosexism. Neuroethics 1: 69–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 29.
    Roy, D. 2011. Cosmopolitics and the brain: The co-becoming of practices in feminism and neuroscience. In Feminism and Neuroscience (eds. Robyn Bluhm, Anne Jacobson and Heidi Maibom). Palgrave-MacMillan (forthcoming).Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Miller, J. 2010. Whose brain, which ethics? Hypatia: A journal of Feminist Philosophy 25(3): 618–624.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Alaimo, S., and S. Heckman. 2008. Material feminisms. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Coole, D., and S. Frost. 2010. New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Roy, D. 2007. Somatic matters: Becoming molecular in molecular biology. Special Issue: Feminisms’ Others. Rhizomes: Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 14 (Summer).
  34. 34.
    Ahmed, S. 2010. Orientations matter. In New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics, ed. D. Coole and S. Frost. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
    Roy, D. 2011. Feminist approaches to inquiry in the natural sciences: Practices for the lab. In Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis, ed. S.N. Hesse-Biber. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Stengers, I. 2005. Introductory notes on an ecology of practices. Cultural Studies Review 11(1): 183–196.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Connolly, W.E. 2002. Neuropolitics: Thinking, culture, speed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Connolly, W.E. 2010. Materialities of Experience. In New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics, ed. D. Coole and S. Frost. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Toga, A. 2008. Brain mapping the structure and function of mice and men (podcast). (accessed September 10, 2010).
  40. 40.
    Gizewski, E.R., et al. 2006. There are differences in cerebral activation between females in distinct menstrual phases during viewing of erotic stimuli: a fMRI study. Experimental Brain Research 174(1): 101–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. 41.
    Takahashi, H., et al. 2006. Men and women show distinct brain activations during imagery of sexual and emotional infidelity. NeuroImage 32(3): 1299–1307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 42.
    Hamann, S., et al. 2004. Men and women differ in amygdala responses to visual sexual stimuli. Nature Neuroscience 7(4): 411–416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. 43.
    Knutson, B., et al. 2008. Nucleus accumbens activation mediates the influence of reward cues on financial risk taking. Brain Imaging 19(5): 509–513.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Cikara, M., et al. 2010. From agents to objects: sexist attitudes and neural responses to sexualized targets. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23(3): 540–551.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. 45. Study: Men’s brains link sex and money. (accessed on April 6, 2008).
  46. 46.
    Lorde, A. 1984. Sister outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Freedom: The Crossing.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    Kaiser, A., et al. 2009. On sex/gender related similarities and difference in fMRI language research. Brain Research Reviews 61: 49–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. 48.
    Grosz, E. 1993. A thousand tiny sexes: feminism and rhizomatics. Topoi 12: 167–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. 49.
    Keller, E.F. 1985. Reflections on gender and science. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Azim, E., D. Mobbs, B. Jo, V. Menon, and A.L. Reiss. 2005. Sex differences in brain activation elicited by humor. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 102(45): 16496–16501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. 51.
    Dennis, C. 2004. The most important sexual organ. Nature 427(6973): 390–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. 52.
    Davies, W., and L.S. Wilkinson. 2006. It is not all hormones: alternate explanations for sexual differentiation of the brain. Brain Research 1126(1): 36–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. 53.
    Carruth, L.L., et al. 2002. Sex chromosome genes directly affect brain sexual differentiation. Nature Neuroscience 5(10): 933–934.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. 54.
    Tobet, S.A. 2002. Genes controlling hypothalamic development of sexual differentiation. European Journal of Neuroscience 16(3): 373–376.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 55.
    Arnold, A.P., et al. 2004. Minireview: Sex chromosomes and brain sexual differentiation. Endocrinology 145(3): 1057–1062.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. 56.
    Bocklandt, S., and E. Vilain. 2007. Sex differences in brain and behavior: hormones versus genes. Advances in Genetics 59: 245–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 57.
    Rahman, Q. 2005. The neurodevelopment of human sexual orientation. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 29(7): 1057–1066.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. 58.
    Hiort, O., et al. 2005. The basis of gender assignment in disorders of somatosexual differentiation. Hormone Research 64(2): 18–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. 59.
    Souter, V.L., et al. 2007. A case of true hermaphroditism reveals an unusual mechanism of twinning. Human Genetics 121: 179–185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. 60.
    Nikolova, G., and E. Vilain. 2006. Mechanisms of disease: transcription factors in sex determination—relevance to human disorders of sex development. Nature Clinical Practice. Endocrinology & Metabolism 2(4): 231–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. 61.
    Bocklandt, S., and D.H. Hamer. 2003. Beyond hormones: a novel hypothesis for the biological basis of male sexual orientation. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation 26(3): 8–12.Google Scholar
  62. 62.
    Swaab, D.F. 2004. Sexual differentiation of the human brain: relevance for gender identity, transsexualism and sexual orientation. Gynecological Endocrinology 19(6): 301–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. 63.
    Shildrick, M. 2005. In Ethics of the body: Postconventional challenges, ed. M. Shildrick and R. Mykitiuk. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar
  64. 64.
    Einstein, G. 2007. Sex and the brain. Cambridge: MIT.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Women’s Studies and Neuroscience and Behavioral BiologyEmory UniversityAtlantaUSA

Personalised recommendations