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"The Essential Difference" by Simon Baron-Cohen

Posted by Tanos on Sun 9 May 04, 10:27 PM to the Internal Enslavement blog

lili and I have recently finished reading "The Essential Difference" by Simon Baron-Cohen. Published last year, this book has been highly controversial for tackling the differences between men and women, in the modern format of the "popular science book."

Baron-Cohen's own field is Autism, and he is both a professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge. His main thesis in the book is that Autism is an extreme case of the "male brain type", but to explain this he presents current thinking on the differences between male and female brain types (ie the average brain types of the populations of men and women), including hypotheses on how these differences may have evolved. As such, the book is an interesting bridge between some areas of psychiatry and Evolutionary Psychology.

(Additionally, this book looks beyond the pop psychology of "Dr" John Gray's "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus", and is based on real research and clinical observations. It is also not written by a "Dr" with a PhD from an unaccredited cheque-in-the-post "university.")

Even discussing this issue is so Politically Incorrect that Baron-Cohen felt obliged to delay writing for ten years, and its clear from the response that ignorant attitudes still abound: even the "customer" reviews on Amazon.com betray critics who feel no shame admitting to not having even read the book - the power of the Politically Correct method presumably enables them to demarcate "correct" from incorrect thinking without stooping to examine arguments and evidence.

Baron-Cohen summarises his position on page one: "The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems."

(But for the above reasons, he is obliged to spend many pages explaining the simple truth that the existence of an average does not mean that everyone is located at that average...)

His interest in this area has grown out of his clinical and research work with Autism, and with people with the Asperger's Syndrome variant in particular. Aspergers only became properly recognised in the 1990's, and its sufferers have the same difficulties with communication and the "emotional understanding" but normal or high intelligence, no delay in the age at which they start speaking, and frequently excel at forming and understanding systems, and other very analytical thinking. Autism is now running at about 1 in 200 people (mostly men), and there are probably many more not being diagnosed: many with Aspergers find productive lives in technical fields (eg computing) and eventually understand human behaviour enough to get along with people (for example, substituting a cognitive understanding of "how to have a conversation" for an emotional feel for how to chat with people.)

Starting from this extreme, Baron-Cohen has worked backwards to "normal" male vs female sex differences, and suggests that Autism is an extreme case of the "male brain" (ie the brain type which most men and fewer women have.)

In describing Aspergers, he says "Some marry, but remain married only if their partner is patient to the point of saintliness, is able to accomodate family life to the rigidity of the autistic routines and systems, and can accept an eccentric, remote, often controlling partner ... Their social life may be restricted to that which is structured for them (for example, through the church) or by others. I should stress that the above social difficulties are typical only of those people with AS [Aspergers] who are suffering enough that they have sought the help of a clinic."

If we look at the above description from another angle, many of these elements can be found in Master/slave relationships: ritualised relationships, that work differently to (almost) everyone else, where there is often a distance between Master and slave, and where the premise of the relationship is control. And many M/s people hanker after some vague idea of an M/s society, where rules and rituals for social interactions might be writ large and accepted by others. The Story of O, the Marketplace series, and even Gor are all partly manifestations of these vague feelings, and the public BDSM scene, with all its scene etiquette, play party rules, dress codes, and even highly structured ways of going to a bar (ie munches), might also partially be a product of these impulses. These things are all about "knowing where you stand" so that you can understand what is going on.

So it's not implausible that some Masters might be coming to M/s with a "very male brain" (even if it's not the "extreme male brain" that causes people to visit Professor Baron-Cohen for help.)

His other hypothesis is a "female brain" type that is better suited to empathising than systemising. He presents some of the recent evidence that has settled the debate about whether the average aptitudes of men and women are the same for all tasks (remember, this is all about averages of groups of people, not about individuals, and that 50% of people are always "above average" ...) and explains that much of this points to a higher ability for empathising.

From our point of view, it's also tempting to try to tie this in to some of the ideas about the emotional sensitivity (and therefore vulnerability) of some submissives, that causes them to seek out the stability of slavery, and this may be a fruitful area for the future.

Baron-Cohen also provides an analysis of male and female brain types in terms of Evolutionary Psychology, with hypotheses about how this differentiation could have evolved in hunter gatherer societies, and how the two types would suit people to different tasks, eg navigating during a three day hunting trip. (It's refreshing to hear a view of masculinity in terms of a bushman systemising navigation, tracking and weapons skills during a long hunt, rather than as a dimwitted caveman clubbing a mammoth to death ;) )

This is an important book in its own right, principally for combining Evolutionary Psychology and Autism research to understand sex differences, and for doing it in the form of a popular science book (which is sold in bookshops a few feet away from all those "Mars and Venus" books.)

For our purposes, in understanding Enslavement, some of its ideas hint at explanations for the psychology of some Masters.

One obvious criticism is the use of the terms "male brain" and "female brain" to describe types which are not specific to men and women (even though they are indeed by far the most common types of male and female brain types, respectively.) Personally, I'm not convinced there is anything wrong with that: for example, enough women are happy enough to describe themselves as "tomboyish" or "butch", and enough men are wearing dresses as BDSM events for people to understand that gender boundaries are ill defined.

Edited Tue 22 Jan 08, 11:54 PM

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