Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains. The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces. Gender mattered, but not how you might think.
The findings were counter-intuitive to me. Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects. The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source). For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite). Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.
Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary. We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.