Your brain needs a British headmistress

(Editor's note) Anthropologist Michael Stewart considers the unexpected impact of  pop-cognitive science on British schoolgirls.

I was struck this week how easily work in the field of cognition and culture is acquired and transposed by others with strange agendas – as is always the case with an academic discipline that is making waves.


The Girls’ neural architecture will be well protected by Cheltenham Ladies' College educational architecture (Cheltenham Ladies' college in the 50s).


Time was when tribal justifications were all the rage. In the late 1960s it was anthropologists whose writings set the printing presses churning. Mary Douglas, Edmund Leach and even Colin Turnbull became household names in educated families. More recently, evolutionary explanations seem to been the mode at the millennium and now it is the turn of ‘cognitive science.’ With Nature running a new, occasional series on ‘what it is to be human’ kicked off recently by Pascal Boyer and followed up by Eors Szathmary (on language origins) it is clear that ‘culture and cognition’ is the tune of the moment.

And while the field should make the most of its fifteen minutes of fame, there is a downside…

However hard scholars in the spotlight try and preserve the integrity and complexity of their vision, it seems their efforts are in vain. At the LSE seminar last week Annette Karmiloff-Smith was arguing, inter alia, against simplistic models linking mental performances in a rigidly fixed fashion to localised brain functions. The developmental evidence (of changes in the brain regions associated with task processing) spoke flatly against single stranded links between architecture and function. She argued persuasively that we should all pay far greater attention to the way our neural architecture changes over time. This, at least, might guard against the crazier forms of reductionist simplification, she hoped.
And then, yesterday morning I was woken just before seven o’clock by the radio program that provides the morning prayer of the realist these days in the UK. At 6.51 precisely, up popped a Ms. Vicky Tuck, headmistress of the above pictured school urging us all to become familiar with the latest findings of neuroscience. Ms Tuck was on the airwaves (listen to the program here) to argue that the general decline in single sex schools in our pretty lands is contrary to the nature of ‘the adolescent brain’ and all human inclination since the 1960s to bring the male and female of the anglo-saxon species together at this stage of their development had been to their irrevocable detriment. Ms Tuck had acquired all the latest knowledge and spoke its attendant jargon with remarkable fluency and authority – I pity her girls who try and pick a dispute with her –  but rendered the ‘stages’ of development as rigidly and as monochromatically as may be conceivable "With the girls, they approach maths through the cerebral cortex” she told us, “while the boys do it through the hippocampus ……" and the impact of neural architecture did not stop there: with literature in boys "it's the amygdala that is very strong"  whereas the (poor or fortunate?) girls with all their emotional empathies were stuck with the cerebral cortex again. And from there it was no step at all to suggest that the follies of the 1960s be set once and for all behind us and the poor dears of the fair sex be cloistered once more alone.

Cheltenham Ladies' School Headmistress Vicky Tuck.

As a plea to the ever anxious parents of middle England to spare their daughter’s honour in more way than one, I think Ms Tuck is probably onto something. And who are we to care that the science is all scrambled – it will be someone else’s eggs in the mix in ten year’s time. We should, perhaps, be grateful that ours are so marketable today.
Link to The Independent dwelling on Ms. Tuck's doctrine.
Link to The Neuroskeptic writing about Vicky and the Crockus (sounds like a Roald Dahl title).


  • comment-avatar
    guest guest 19 November 2008 (22:42)

    Deja-vu! This is strongly reminiscent of the notorious case of The Crockus – a fictional brain area which supposedly explains why girls and boys learn differently. According to crank American educationalist, Dan Hodgins. The Crockus provided neuroscience bloggers a lot of laughs, but it seems that the spirit of the Crockus lives on. I think I’m going to have blog about this myself now. I wonder if there’s any link between Hodgins and Tuck – a quick google search suggests not, but it warrants a bit more attention. if there isn’t, maybe someone should set them up on a date? They’re made for each other! —

  • comment-avatar
    Ophelia Deroy 20 November 2008 (00:50)

    I certainly agree with the general caution – that one should be aware of fashionable non-sense, and cognitive sciences results taken out of context and misinterpreted. But it’s even too kind an objection to Mrs Tuck to mention her rigid and monochromatic view of brain development, when she obviously knows nothing about brain in the first place (the ”cerebral cortex” that girls are supposed to use to solve maths is a very, very vague localization ; and boys are supposed to like maths (nothing said about how they solve a maths problem), all this because of the amygdala, yet then they don’t empathize when reading novel – whereas girls do, using again their ”cerebral cortex” ! what a mess !). I don’t know whether Mrs Tuck has been in one of the colleges she now represents, but this speech alone doesn’t say much in its defense. Let’s hope her pupils read good pop-science (it also exists….) and find their way out !

  • comment-avatar
    Ophelia Deroy 20 November 2008 (10:39)

    NB : there is a website, which is dedicated to ”neuro-journalism”, and tries to separate the wheat from the chaff. I discovered it very recently, but it looks serious, and the project is fair enough.

  • comment-avatar
    guest guest 21 November 2008 (10:32)

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