Naomi Wolf's "Vagina" is full of bad science about the brain

Given that she's written a book about the vagina, Wolf seems to mention the brain a lot.

Naomi Wolf has a new book out. Here’s an extract. It’s proven controversial. I’m not going to discuss Wolf’s politics, nor will I mention the famous "pasta incident" as I don’t think I can write anything sensible about that event. I am however a neuroscientist, and for a book about the vagina, Wolf seems to mention the brain a lot.

So let’s see how brainy it is.

Words, when deployed in relation to the vagina, are always more than "just words". Because of the subtlety of the mind-body connection, words about the vagina are also what philosopher John Austin, in his 1960 book How to Do Things with Words, calls "performative utterances", often used as a means of social control. A "performative utterance" is a word or phrase that actually accomplishes something in the real world. When a judge says "Guilty" to a defendant, or a groom says "I do", the words alter material reality.

Studies have shown that verbal threats or verbal admiration or reassurances can directly affect the sexual functioning of the vagina. One suggests that a stressful environment can negatively affect vaginal tissue itself…

True of course, but it’s nothing to do with vaginas specifically. Threats, admiration and reassurances all influence our stress levels, and stress can affect the function of the vagina. But the same could be said for any other organ: stress also affects the heart, the stomach, and even the penis.

What’s more, the study Wolf linked to in support of her idea that “a stressful environment can negatively affect vaginal tissue itself” was in rats.

Moving on:

In 2010, male Yale students gathered at a "Take Back the Night" event, where their female classmates were marching in a group, protesting against sexual assault. The young men chanted at the protesters: "No means yes and yes means anal." Some of the young women brought a lawsuit against the university, arguing that tolerating such behaviour created an unequal educational environment. Ethically, they are in the right, and neurobiologically, they are right as well. Almost all young women who face a group of their male peers chanting such slogans are likely to feel instinctively slightly panicked. On some level they are getting the message that they may be in the presence of would-be rapists, making it impossible to shrug off immature comments, as women are often asked to do…

Yes, women faced with such behaviour may feel panicked.

That’s common sense.

There’s nothing “neurobiological” about it – well, no more so than anything else in life. Everything we feel, think or perceive affects the brain – that’s how we feel, think and perceive. Everything is neurobiological – try doing anything without a brain, if you don’t believe me – so it’s misleading to focus on particular incidents as being somehow more neural, and therefore more real, than others.

These women’s panic is neurobiological… but no more neurobiological than the events occurring in the brains of their abusers, who, presumably, experienced a pleasurable release of dopamine and other "happy hormones" and probably reduced stress levels to boot.

Does that mean it was OK? Of course not! Because the Yale incident is not about the brain.

It gets worse.

Sexually threatening stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream, which has been connected to abdominal fat in women, with its attendant risks of diabetes and cardiac problems; it also raises the likelihood of heart disease and stroke. If you sexually stress a woman enough, over time, other parts of her life are likely to go awry; she will have difficulty relaxing in bed, as well as in the classroom or in the office.

True enough, but all stress releases cortisol into the bloodstream, which has been connected to abdominal fat in both men and women… and so on. Stress is bad. I think we can all agree on that. Cortisol, in excess, is probably bad in the long term, although not many people realize that not having enough cortisol is also bad, indeed it’s a medical emergency and can kill.

What’s more, few know that "good" stress, such as physical exercise, also releases cortisol in most people, and people injected with high doses of cortisol often enjoy it (“the most common adverse effects of short-term corticosteroid therapy are euphoria and hypomania [the ‘high’ phase of bipolar disorder].”)

Cortisol’s complicated.

Wolf then writes:

This [stress-induced cortisol release] in turn will inhibit the dopamine boost she might otherwise receive, which would in turn prevent the release of the chemicals in her brain that otherwise would make her confident, creative, hopeful, focused – and effective, especially relevant if she is competing academically or professionally with you.

Stress and cortisol have repeatedly been shown to increase dopamine release. In some studies. Other studies show they decrease it. It’s complicated, in other words.

Dopamine is complicated, and really rather fascinating if you’re into that kind of thing. It acts on at least five different types of receptor, and what it does depends on the receptor type; there are four major dopamine “pathways” in the brain, one of which (the mesocortical pathway) is thought to inhibit another (the mesolimbic pathway) – and plenty of subdivisions beyond that.

Cortisol is, as we’ve seen, complicated too. Don’t get me started on surface vs nuclear receptors, mineralocorticoids vs. glucocorticoids, and the hypothalamopituitary axis. Unless you’re a neuroscientist, you don’t want to know. It’s not relevant. Neither is Wolf’s simplified version of it.

Finally, in an interview with Wolf, we’re told:

Part of Wolf’s investigation revolves around the various hormones and neurotransmitters activated in a woman's body during a "successful" sexual encounter, eg dopamine, "which boosts the chemical construct of confidence, motivation, focus, all of these feminist qualities. Goal orientedness. Assertiveness"… In the book, she writes, "dopamine is the ultimate feminist chemical in the female brain,"

If that were true, women with Parkinson’s could never be feminists, because that disease is caused by degeneration of the dopamine neurons. If that were true, feminists would be campaigning for the legalization of cocaine and crystal meth – at least for women – because those drugs boost dopamine levels.

In fact, if that were true, it would mean that the most complimentary thing you could say to a woman would be “You sound like you’re on crack!”

Naomi Wolf, you sound like you’re on crack.

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist. He blogs here

The cover of "Vagina: A New Biography" by Naomi Wolf

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist. He blogs here.

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Hillary Clinton has spoken out today to warn about the fake news epidemic sweeping the world. Clinton went as far as to say that "lives are at risk" from fake news, the day after Pope Francis compared reading fake news to eating poop. (Side note: with real news like that, who needs the fake stuff?)

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In all seriousness, many claim that identifying fake news is a simple matter of checking the source and disbelieving anything "too good to be true". Unfortunately, however, fake news outlets post real stories too, and real news outlets often slip up and publish the fakes. Use fact-checking websites like Snopes to really get to the bottom of a story, and always do a quick Google before you share anything. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.