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.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war