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Whitney Cummings as Julia. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

I Study the Female Brain. Here’s What “The Female Brain” Gets Wrong.

Researching orgasms gives this reviewer some perspective on the new comedy by Whitney Cummings.

Asking a neuroscientist to watch The Female Brain without the benefit of anxiolytics was chasing trouble. But on Valentine’s Day I took myself on a date with an open mind. Any flick claiming to portray gender differences in the brain would have to exaggerate their size. If they wanted to make a woman have a pratfall because she has .02 percent poorer depth perception than men generally do, I would schadenfreude right along.

What I did not expect was Julia. Julia has my job: an emotion neuroscientist. Coming off of Grey’s Anatomy, whose sex neuroscientist was an oversexed lesbian spouting false facts about orgasm “lighting up the whole brain,” I was pessimistic. Would The Female Brain, a romantic-comedy adaptation of a 2006 book by psychiatrist Louann Brizendine, get us right?

The film bounces between the stories of four couples, with cutaways to PowerPoints of neuroscience-y explanations of each of their conflicts. It made oversimplifications and exaggerations I had seen before. Even so, when Julia declares that the brain “stops producing dopamine” two years into a romantic relationship, then “starts producing oxytocin” I laughed. The guy beside me clapped, pointed at the screen, and exclaimed “exactly!” to his female companion. What the hell? Did he not see how insanely wrong that was? In fact, high sexual arousal floods the peripheral system with oxytocin (it actually cannot be measured in the brain) and couples tend to have the most frequent sex earlier in their relationships. Valentine’s dates hooted, snapped, blurted “See!” and seemed completely taken by the pretty pretty brain pictures on the screen. What were these humans doing?

At one point Julia is conducting an fMRI brain-imaging study on emotional-response differences in men and women, but the giant magnet is surrounded by dangerous metal, the subject’s head is not properly stabilized, and the images being reviewed are only pleasant ones. That might be okay if all you care about is how people respond to babies and bunnies, but usually we include negative images in studies of emotion. In other words: they got a lot of easy stuff wrong. “I hope I don’t know their consultant,” my conceited scientist brain decided.

The guy beside me clapped, pointed at the screen, and exclaimed “exactly!” to his female companion. What the hell? Did he not see how insanely wrong that was?

The plot thickens when poor, divorced, unemotional Julia is confronted by an attractive research subject. Now I’ll admit, this happens. I’m human, I notice … things. What I would never do is what Julia does next: her research assistant acquires his phone number, which Julia calls. They go on a date. Suspend my disbelief? She’s gonna get suspended by her university!

There is sex. Sex on drugs. Sex not happening. Bad sex. Greg, a professional basketball player, worries that his performance failures on the court might be translating to the bedroom. A little bad sex advice from an over-confident physical therapist leads him to confidently “take charge” during sex with his wife, with immediate consequence. Most of what we see in people who have sex counseling sessions is they’ve had some combination of bad sex information and poor communication with their partners, so these were remarkably more realistic than I expected. It was also good to see that the character who gets caught surreptitiously masturbating is, for once, the wife. She understands that sex is absolutely helpful in managing stress. We could have used a lesbian or poly person, but, when it comes to sex in movies, I like to keep the bar low. Not bad, Female Brain.

Someone clearly anticipated that the movie’s simplifications could spur accusations of sexism. Female characters say things like “I could set women back 60 years …” and “these stereotypical female qualities are actually strengths.” But it felt like shallow pandering. Research into gender differences is not sexist on its face, and female scientists are not afraid of finding differences in our research. Rather, gender differences depend on the context. For example, if women are likelier to make decisions informed by emotions, that might make them great at mediating a nasty divorce, because they can empathize with each side. But it could make them bad at driving a hard bargain for their mom’s funeral expenses, because too much emotion may just overwhelm the system. In any case, this all applies only to some women. There’s often less than five percentage points of difference that separate men and women in behavioral research.

The film’s message seems to be that we are powerless against our neurochemistry. Julia is a flood of certainty throughout the film, declaring “I rewired my brain already”; “you are in dopamine withdrawal”; and “I refuse to be a puppet to my neurochemicals.” In reality, neuroscientists live in probability land. We “might suggest” and find data “consistent with.” The good news is that “nature or nurture” died in science 30-ish years ago. Our genetics give our brain tendencies that are influenced by environment, so you can neither dominate your neurochemicals nor be dominated by them. The brain grows, adapts, and “rewires” with every experience, talk therapy, and masturbation session, and that is a good thing. This is how we learn.

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