Hey, did you know that your brain is completely crazy and does all kinds of far-out shit like some kind of weird goopy wizard that rides around in your skull doing magic tricks? It's true! A new study that found that when people spend a bunch of time staring at heavily gendered objects (like bras, or neckties*), and then are subsequently shown photos of androgynous faces, they tend to identify the face as belonging to the gender opposite the one associated with the objects. It sounds complicated, I know, but let a scientist tell it:
The authors found that when people view objects highly associated with one gender, like high heels for women or electric shavers for men, for a short period of time and are then asked to identify the gender of an androgynous face, they are more likely to identify it as being of the gender opposite to that associated with the stimuli.
Previous studies have demonstrated that continuous exposure to certain visual stimuli causes short and long term adaptations with temporary aftereffects due to repeated stimulation of specific pathways in the brain. For example, after prolonged exposure to a red screen, a viewer is more likely to perceive a white screen as being green (the perceptual opposite of red). This study, though, is the first demonstrating that such adaptation can occur for a more abstract feature like gender perception.
WHAAAAAAAT. Forgive my pseudo-scientific rambling, but...so...our brains process gender in a way similar to the way we process light? Or, at least, gender can make an impression on our brains in the same way light does? Is that for real? Theoretically (and I know, as I am not a brain scientist, that I'm treading on a VERY thin membrane of understanding here), does that mean we could potentially influence people's understanding and acceptance of gender by bombarding them with strategically gendered images? I wonder if, in fact, those adaptations haven't shaped a lot of our cultural ideas about gender up until now, in a way that's self-perpetuating and not entirely constructive. Perhaps it's not our perception of women that shapes our ideas about "woman things"—it's our inundation with "woman things" that shapes our perception of women. I'm speculating wildly here, but that is SO INTERESTING.
The authors suggest two possible explanations for their results. The first possibility they suggest is that common brain regions may be involved in identifying gender-associated objects and identifying the gender of androgynous faces, so the effect is akin to what occurs in the red screen-white screen example above.
Alternately, the researchers suggest that a higher cognitive function of 'adapting to gender' may modulate the process of 'assigning gender', whether to an object or an androgynous face.
Well, kaboom. There goes my brainz.
*A quick aside: Hey, have you ever tried to come up with examples of gendered objects for males and females? Like I just did? Because it is soooooooooooo easy to come up with examples for women (bras, high heels, lipstick, dresses, frilly underpants, tampons, nail polish, etc.) and nearly impossible to come up with a list of examples for men (jock straps, neckties...um...corner offices? Salaries commensurate with their experience and ability?). That's because "male" objects ARE JUST OBJECTS. Because, let's never forget, men are people but women are women.
Photo credit: lovleah / Stockfresh.