Sexism on the Brain
Many have worked to shatter the glass ceiling that exists with sexism, but despite their efforts, sexism is still prevalent in the world around us. Sexism includes, “sexist attitudes or ideology, including beliefs, theories, and ideas that hold one group as deservedly superior to the other and that justify oppressing members of the other group on the basis of their sex” (Napikoski, 2019). Sexism can be extremely harmful, and it is important that we all acknowledge our beliefs and views, and actively work to change them. But where do these beliefs come from, and how can we work towards changing them? To start, it is important that we have a grasp on how the brain functions, a basic overview of cognition, and an understanding of how our memories are affected by culture.
Beginning with defining memory, there is a plethora of false concepts and ideas regarding memory on several facets. Memory is primarily the process of a continuing set of predictions for the future, and memory is evolutionarily for survival (Kleinknecht, 2020a). Memory is powerful in how it allows us to respond and react to our environment. Memory can help distinguish threatening from friendly and therefore allow for the proper reaction in order to survive. The area that memory can be troublesome in is accuracy. This is because the human brain was not designed for high levels of accuracy, it was designed for reducing errors in an efficient manner (Kleinknecht, 2020a). By efficient, it is meant in terms of energy conservation. The brain’s main source of energy is glucose, and if brains were to memorize every single detail of every memory – then, it would utilize far too much energy. As well as our skulls do not have the capacity for that much tissue to be created in order to hold that much memory (in terms of synaptic connections). Thus, our memories are less rich in detail, and more of a general remembrance when it comes to the forming of memories.
To continue, the process of memory formation is rather detailed, although there are some aspects researchers are not quite sure about yet. According to authors Marlieke T. R. van Kesteren and Martijn Meeter (2020) on the declarative memory formation process,
The formation of long-term declarative memories is proposed to be governed by a set of successive processes in the brain. First, new information becomes encoded into a memory by the hippocampus and surrounding regions in the medial temporal lobe (MTL). The hippocampus is thought to connect different parts of a memory that make up a specific encode (p. 1).
The hippocampus and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) are key areas in the brain as it pertains to memory formation as discussed above. However, these are not the only noted areas of importance regarding memory, “In particular, the integration of associated memories is thought to also depend on computations within the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a prefrontal region intimately connected with the hippocampus..” (van Kesteren et al., 2016, p. 1). As a general statement, memory is just the prediction, or likelihood, of neuronal pathways reactivating again. There is an extensive process at the cellular level for the process of memory formation, especially regarding Hebb’s rule. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is the primary idea for this rule (Kleinknecht, 2020b). Essentially, the activation of one neuron (e.g., neuron A) that is near others (e.g., neuron B) leads to simultaneous activation, which then increases synaptic connection strength. Neurons do not ever actually touch. They are suspended in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF); however, they are close to each other (Kleinknecht, 2020b). These neural networks are distributed across the cortex. The stronger the synaptic connection, the more likely that neural pathway is going to reactivate.
Moving away from the cellular level, Danial Kahneman (2010) explains that the experiencing-self, in terms of memory, knows and lives in the present. We have episodic memories, which are personal slices of time for us to remember. We also have semantic memory, which is what we know about the world around us broadly. Together these make up our autobiographical memory, our self memory system (Baddeley et al., 2020). Within this system is the remembering-self, which keeps the score of life based on the past. The remembering-self also tells a story about the past based on one’s current emotional state (Kahneman, 2010). Continuing on with the experiencing-self, when one tries to recall a memory – it is based upon the reactivation of the neuronal pathways previously discussed. The stronger the synaptic connection, the better likelihood of memory retrieval for the experiencing-self in that moment. To reiterate, memory is the process of prediction, and the stronger the synaptic connection of those neurons – the greater likelihood of retrieving that memory regarding neuronal pathway reactivation. And our memory is not built for accuracy or high-levels of detail, but enough for survival.
Memory in Terms of Feminism
Because our memories are generally not intricately detailed, we lose episodic details and our schemas can lead us to make over-generalizations and misattributions. This is how we can get prejudicial beliefs in our heads, leading us to make severe misattributions and over-generalizations about certain groups and people. We often build very strong schemas (i.e., knowledge structures) that can be difficult to change. When presented with new information, we may alter the information to fit within our existing schemas, to make the information fit with what we already know. However, our memory is built to be flexible, in other words our memories were made to be adaptable to any environment (Wang & Ross, 2007). We remember the things we need most to thrive, whether that is socially or physically. These memories reinforce our cultural context and therefore more often than not a negative association of a particular group. Our brains, while incredibly high-tech in terms of memory processing are made for generalizations, especially when it comes to emotions. Often when we create a memory tied to emotion the details of the actual incident can be lost in the overwhelming force of the particular emotion. This is exactly what has happened in large-scale with the feminist movement. The media has focused on the parts of feminism that sell: women yelling. This particular perspective reinforces the western value of women being less important. The combination of negative media surrounding this movement and the historical pattern of minimizing women’s voices has created this turn from being a movement of empowerment to being one of just “the crazy women”.
Culture plays an important role in the shaping of our memory process. Culture creates a baseline pattern for us, and as we experience new things, we compare them to our initial baseline. “Cultural influences take place in the larger context of setting the goals and purposes of remembering, in the interpersonal sphere of daily mnemonic practices and exchanges, and at the individual of shaping cognitive schemas and memory strategies” (Wang & Ross, 2007, p.662). Brain patterns of activation do not differ along the visual-auditory-kinesthetic line. Instead, we all experience connections between vision-audition, between kinesthetic-audition, between vision-kinesthetics, and so on. This means that if we learn sexism from our culture by seeing, hearing, experiencing, and taking part in it, it is more likely to create cues for information to be remembered. This, however, does not mean that culture creates who we are and that we are stuck with this baseline. This just means that culture creates bias, but we can change it!
Changing Our Memory
So how can we change these beliefs? One of the ways we can do this is by finding information that has different perspectives, beliefs, and views from our own. Another way to start changing our beliefs is to recognize how people, institutions, and language are sexist. One of the best ways we can change our views is by using self-regulation. This self-regulation process is called the cyclical cycle and consists of three sequential phases; forethought phase, performance control phase, and the self-reflection phase. Guidance in such self-reflection and adjustment feeds our sense of competence, which is a key component of healthy motivation. The forethought phase consists of us accepting a task and starting the planning of our behaviors. If we want to change our sexist beliefs, we must accept the task and actively make a plan to do so. The next step is the performance control phase. This is the step where we “think about our thinking”. During this time, we guide ourselves through the process by self-instruction. After this phase and before the next, we complete a task and get some feedback. The third phase which is the self-reflection phase is where we look at ourselves and connect it to our behavior. During this time, we give causal attributions to our behaviors. We can continue to go through this process and work to change our prejudicial beliefs.
So whether it is feminism, racism, or ableism, we need to look outside of our own realities (our memories, our minds, our perceptions) and see the world at hand. We tend to believe that most people are inherently good, and have something of value to bring to the metaphorical table. We are not permanently bound to previous experiences and knowledge, we have the power to grow, and change the way we think. We just have to try and understand one another. If we can all have a willingness to learn and relearn the things that we experience, we can fight our biggest bully, that of our own minds.
Why Feminism is Not a Bad Word: Changing the Misconception
The feminist narrative has been one that has stayed controversial for many years. It is a movement that is charged with many emotions and misconceptions; thus, the word has almost lost the original intention. Just think about it. When you hear the word “feminist” what are some things that come to mind? Arrogant, man-hating, aggressive maybe? These are all things that are stored within your emotional memory of the word. As a parent, it is particularly important to discuss these aspects with your children, as this is when the first associations with sexism come into play. Although it may seem difficult to rewire this association in your brain in order to help your kids with this concept, this paper will outline some psychologically sound tips for how you can raise feminist children and how you can reshape yourself in the process.
The Developing Mind
Memory is a rather complex concept – it is made up of so many different elements, and is widely misunderstood. Memory is how we make sense of the world around us. Schemas are the way in which we create the neural connections between what we do know and what we can know. Schemas are the building blocks of our memory systems. They help us make connections between people or places and future occurrences of these things. In terms of neural processing, our memory is effective, but not for the specifics. Have you ever sat down for an exam, and all you can think of is that one Bruno Mars song? That is because your brain tends to smooth over the details to a cohesive narrative. Our brains attend to the ideas it believes are important, and bypass all the “non-essentials” (Kleinknect, 2020c). Frustrating, right? That is not to say you are doomed to only knowing useless information, it just means it takes more time for that memory to move from the episodic details (the small day to day details of life) to your long-term semantic memory system.
What is even harder to adjust are the neural patterns created in childhood. These memory systems become the baseline for all other future memories and associations. This is why childhood traumas are so difficult to overcome, and this is also how negative biases come to fruition. In the context of sexism, this is how commonly known negative connotations come to be about women. When the only message you have been given is that women are weak and incapable, that is the narrative you will carry and believe. So, let’s change that for the better. We as parents of the next generation have the power to influence an entire set of children to be kinder, and more compassionate humans.
Continuing on, it starts with creating mini memories. Read your kids’ books about strong women, buy them toys that inspire. If you are a woman yourself, then model what it means to be a strong-willed woman doing great things in this world. Another important aspect to assist with dismantling sexism is to help your sons to disengage from toxic masculinity. This is a point that many forget. By reinforcing that stereotypically “girly” things are bad or wrong to engage in, we also tell our girls that they are inferior. You do not have to be gender neutral to allow your kids to have the platform to be themselves. Simply put, be present and be a listening ear regarding your children with the utmost compassion. The world can give off a multitude of misleading information, and it is your job to teach your children how to be compassionate not only to themselves but to others. We do this by making the positive memories and reinforcing feminist beliefs (Kleinknecht, 2020b). Feminism is not a bad word, its meaning has simply been lost in translation.
The Neuro-Science of it All
With the ideas previously mentioned, it is important to attend to the nitty-gritty science of it all. Beginning with long-term memory, otherwise referred to as declarative memory. Your long-term memory is simply the end result of your working memory (Baddeley et al., 2020). Well, what is working memory? Peter Doolittle (2017) in his TedTalk on working memory articulates the concept rather well. He explains working memory as the part of our consciousness that we are aware of all day, and it is aimed at current and short-term goals. An example of one of these goals would be something along the lines of “I want to pet that cat.” And then, you go and pet that cat. Doolittle (2017) also explains that working memory allows us to communicate, problem solve, think critically, and then build a narrative around these. Thus, long-term memory, or declarative memory, is simply the end result of working memory. Long-term memory is the cell assemblies of repeated working memory.
In addition, how can we navigate through all the information we interact with daily? That’s where working memory and declarative memory also come into play. Both the working memory system and the long-term memory system attribute a feeling of knowing and a feeling of reliving something (Kleinknecht, 2020a). The working memory system works both to store the information presented in front of us via visual, auditory, or other sensation and perception system signals- and it works as the manipulator. The working memory system negotiates with and manipulates our brain’s current open space (Kleinknecht, 2020a). Imagine trying to decorate your living room – you have pieces of furniture that need to be placed, and you have an open floor space to work with. You, as the working memory, are going to manipulate the placement of the furniture to best maximize that floor space. And from here, the long-term memory is the repeated cell assemblies from working memory – or walking into the living room repeatedly with the furniture the same as you left it last.
Moving forward, with these repeated cell assemblies they can be changed and with these changes arise new outcomes. This aspect is one of the central reasons as to why memory is so complex. Cell assemblies are not stuck in place, but they are the result of repeated working memory. Here is also where the bias (i.e., sexism) enters as well. Long-term memory is the residue of thought – and it is not rather specific residue either. As mentioned earlier, our memory is not detail-oriented. It is rather big concept oriented (i.e., women are weak), and therefore changing this can be difficult. But it is not impossible. Given what we now know about how working memory and long-term memory work together, we can derive from this information in order to now manipulate our own memories to become less sexist.
The Learning-Science of it All
So, how do we become less sexist? Let us first start by going back to discussing schemas. Schemas help us organize current knowledge and provide a framework for our future. As we learn new information that is congruent with our existing knowledge, it is then better remembered. And as we develop strong schemas, we often lose specific details of a memory (Baddeley et al., 2020). When we lose episodic details, our schemas can lead us to make over-generalizations and misattributions. This is how we can get prejudicial beliefs in our heads, leading us to make severe misattributions and over-generalizations about certain groups and people.
With this in mind, how can we change our schemas? It goes without saying, but this is not an easy task to be done. However, with planning, preparation, repetition, and reflection it can in fact be achieved. We all experience connections between vision-audition, between kinesthetic-audition, between vision-kinesthetics, and so on. Using multiple routes of activation will help us to develop more cues that we will later be able to use for retrieval (Kleinknect, 2020b). The more cues we create when studying and learning new information means that the likelihood of successful retrieval when we need that information will significantly increase.
So, what tricks can we use to enhance these cues? One of the ways we can do this is by finding information that has different perspectives, beliefs, and views from our own. Information that is congruent to our own is likely to be remembered, similarly, information that is incongruent with our own is also likely to be remembered. When we first learn things, our brain encodes information in the hippocampus and other surrounding regions of the medial temporal lobe (MTL) including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These connected areas of the brain are responsible for memory and emotional regulation. According to authors van Kesteren et al. (2012),
The lack of any strong pre-existing connections, direct or indirect, leads to little resonance in the neocortical network. Thus, mPFC is not activated, MTL is not inhibited and the MTL serves to bind the active representations of a new instance. This leads to good (episodic) encoding that is sensitive to MTL disruption (p. 215).
If we continue to experience the information that is incongruent with our own it increases the likelihood of reactivation, eventually becoming part of the schema. Another way to start changing our beliefs is to recognize how people, institutions, and language are sexist. Challenging our own ideas and beliefs and recognizing how sexism is being played out in our institutions, language, and the people around us is a great first step.
As we begin to thoroughly study sexism and its prevalence in the world around us, it is important to remember that we cannot learn it all at once. Spacing out time is important when learning and storing new information. Each time we take a break and start back up our brain logs it as a separate instance. These separate instances increase the likelihood of creating strong neural connections (Kleinknecht, 2020b). As we create strong neural connections, we set ourselves up for easier retrieval at a later date.
Another way to optimize our brain is to use interleaving. Interleaving is a type of studying/learning where you break all the information you want to learn into small units, you work in intervals through the units and then cycle back. With sexism, your first interval might be to study sexist language, the second interval could be to listen to people’s experiences with sexism, and the third could be to study how to call out sexist behavior. When done correctly, studying one topic in multiple ways, helps our minds make appropriate optimization.
Other tricks to help enhance our cues for later retrieval involve elaboration, dual coding, using concrete examples, and retrieval practice. Elaborating, is simply, explaining and describing ideas with great detail. We can make elaborating easier by using concrete examples. Concrete examples consist of finding information or stories that provide specific examples that help make sense of complex and abstract ideas. Dual coding can also be beneficial to enhancing our cues, and it consists of combining visuals and words (Baddeley et al., 2020). Then, there is retrieval practice. Retrieval practice consists of bringing what you know and are learning to mind (Kleinknecht, 2020b). You can do this by writing, drawing, or singing. All of these can be done by yourself, with a friend, or with your children!
So, start talking to others (in particular your children) about what it means to be anti-sexist. Read books, listen to first hand experiences, spend time looking at how people and institutions are perpetuating sexism. Draw pictures, write, sing, and make memes. Plan, prepare, and repeat all of these activities. Take breaks. Spend time in reflection, reflect on what you know, what you are learning, and what you expect for your future. Remember that changing our ideas, values, and beliefs does not happen overnight. Becoming anti-sexist, and possibly even a feminist, will take time. So remember, you are here, and you are trying. That is a great first step!
Female. It is a word that triggers so many emotions, both positive and negative. Children are so sensitive to these associations, both good and bad. With that being said, it is all the more important that we begin these conversations with our children from the start. This means using appropriate language to help them categorize their environment, encouraging positive intergroup relationships, and generally encouraging positive attitudes towards female identifying people (of all kinds). As your child is coming into their own identity, nurturing this positive behavior will help them to be more compassionate and empathetic towards others in the future. We, as parents and caregivers, have a responsibility to set our kids up for success and helping them create this positive association is helpful in that.
Nurturing a Positive Sense of Self
From the day we are born, we are beginning to sort the world around us. Before we have language, its images and surroundings that we are taking into consideration. From there our memories begin to develop. Have you ever tried to remember a memory from when you were a baby? This seems impossible right? You would be right in that assumption, our minds do not start to conceptualize or give narrative until mid-childhood (ages 6-8) (Kleinknect, 2020a). Before this, memories are being conceptualized in a co-creation nature with both the caregiver and child (Baddeley, et al., 2020). This means that without the narrative of the parent guiding their child through an experience, the child will not be able to recall any memory of a given time. Tessler and Nelson studied this point by doing memory experiments with children and caregivers. In one experiment they assigned a group of children to walk around a park with an adult to narrate the scene and in another group they assigned children to walk around with an adult who did not narrate the scene. At the end of the walks, both groups of kids were asked what they remembered from the scene. What the researchers found was that the group, which had narration given to them, was better able to remember what they had just witnessed, while the other group struggled to recall. Their work showed just how influential parent-child interactions can be on memory (Tessler & Nelson, 1992).
Memories are the foundations upon which our children begin forming their self-concept and understanding of the world. This process in the brain is known as the self memory system. As we come into our concept of self (autobiographical memory) we are constantly retrieving information and cues from our past in order to understand who we are in the present (van Kesteren et al., 2012). Thus, you can see the importance of speaking to your children is within the foundations of who they become. In terms of feminism, this is why it is pivotal to talk to your children about how phrases like “you run like a girl”, or “stop being a sissy” are problematic. Another side that many do not consider is how toxic masculinity plays into this matter. By telling your boys that skirts are not for them, or that they “shouldn’t play with dolls”, we reinforce the narrative that being feminine is bad. As parents, changing this narrative can be difficult – especially when these set genders have been seemingly hard-wired into our system, when in fact they are not. To that end, our consumerist society further reinforces this divide, but I assure you it’s possible to undo society’s toxic gender narrative. We simply need to change the label. Rather than encouraging our children to choose “girly” or “boyish” toys and stories, instead simply encourage what makes your child happy. At the end of the day, that is what matters most anyways, right?
Understanding Autobiographical Memory
In order to understand your child, it is important to understand how memory develops in the first place. Our memories are a collection of our day-to-day experiences that mesh into one overarching narrative. Beginning with autobiographical memory, according to Baddeley et al. (2020),
Autobiographical memory refers to the memories that we hold regarding ourselves and our interactions with the world around us, that help to define who we were at different times in the past, who we are currently, and who we hope to be in the future (p. 351).
In short, autobiographical memory is memory across our life, filled with both semantic and episodic memories. Episodic memories are best known as our day-to-day experiences (Kleinknect, 2020b). Episodic memories are the rush of details that we attend to within a given day, an example of this could be going to work. Each of the details involved in going to work (e.g., grabbing a coffee, or driving to a specific place) create a mini episodic memory that may, or may not, be moved into the more long term, semantic memory. Together these are the bulk of our autobiographical memory.
We live life in this episodic manner in order to maximize our memory and metabolic energy. Our brains only have a limited capacity of knowledge to hold, and thus our brains must create this overarching narrative. Another way that we maximize this is through the spreading activation model of memory. In this model we take little moments of experience and link them together to create semantic concepts. For example if one thinks of the color red it may spurr your brain to think of firetrucks which are linked to that dalmations and so on and so forth (Kleinknect, 2020b). But how we come to gain these semantic concepts in terms of our personal narratives depends on cultural differences, and what we as caregivers reinforce in raising our children.
Outside from episodic and semantic memory, culture can have quite a hefty impact on our autobiographical memory. For example, western culture has a tendency to place more emphasis on the self and self-concept, where Eastern culture does not and puts more emphasis on the group, away from the self (Wang & Ross, 2010). This can influence our autobiographical memory, and especially our narrative that comes with this memory. Those raised in Western culture are often taught to stand out, be unique, etc., and this will influence how our sense of self develops within the autobiographical memory. They may think about themselves more, and act upon this. Whereas in Eastern culture, more often they are taught to not stand out from the crowd, consider others before yourself, etc., and the same influence applies where they may think about themselves less (Wang & Ross, 2010). Culture and society can influence autobiographical memory in other ways, but this is one of the best ways to show as an example. All of these experiences come together to create autobiographical memory. We know who we are, and who we have been all because of our memories and our experiences. What we place our values on and what emotions we feel, will determine how we remember ourselves in a given space and time. Kids are just beginning this process and the foundation they create in autobiographical memory will affect their sense of self for a lifetime.
Can We Really Rely on Our Memory?
Now I know what you are thinking, if one’s sense of self is wrapped up in your overarching experience and we gloss over some of the details, can we really even trust our memories? The answer is both yes and no. Although memory is extremely useful and often reliable, it is also fallible (Schacter, 1999). Memory is also malleable, as it can be manipulated and lead astray. Elizabeth Loftus (2013) explains
We get misinformation not only if we’re questioned in a leading way, but if we talk to other witnesses who might consciously or inadvertently feed us some erroneous information, or if we see media coverage about some event we might have experienced, all of these provide the opportunity for this kind of contamination of our memory.” (8:10).
While we may not be able to recall all the specific details of every life experience and have memories that can be manipulated, we do remember enough to be able to recall most instances with relative accuracy or at least the gist of it. Though our memories are not perfect our cultures are often striving for exactness and accuracy. In reality, there is no photographic memory – there is only better or worse semantic processing. Semantic processing is the way in which you rehearse a memory over and over until the recall becomes almost second nature (Kleinknect, 2020b). We improve our semantic recall when we use repetition of concepts and varying stimuli.
This is why consistency is important in terms of how we raise our children; as in, we need to take the little moments and use them as learning experiences. For instance, if your family happens to see a man wearing a dress in public, this may be incongruent with our original ideas of who is supposed to wear a dress. When we see and experience something we are not used to, such as a man wearing a dress, it sticks in our mind as a novelty. Incongruencies/novelty memories are likely to be encoded with good episodic detail (van Kesteren et al., 2012). As novelties continue to be reactivated and experienced they will no longer be incongruent and will become part of our schemas. Reenforcing something along the lines of “dresses are not made for one gender or another but simply made for a person to feel good about themselves” helps to disrupt the gendered assumptions that society may enforce. When we use these little moments with our kids as learning experiences we bolster feminist beliefs and create a longlasting positive narrative. In turn we as adults can also learn from these little moments.
We as parents have the power to help nurture the best in our children, whether its feminist beliefs or anti-racist actions, we have the power to teach love, kindness, and empathy to our kids. Our kids are like sponges and they have the capacity to understand these big topics even at a small age. Feminism is not about one gender being better than the other, it’s about treating every gender with respect whether its women, men, or any varying gender. It is much easier for our brains to begin making these positive associations from the start than it is to unlearn bad habits or associations. Together as parents and caregivers we can teach our children to be better than generations before. We have the power to take back the labels and allow our children to live their best lives and to respect others in living their truths; together we can instill a lasting feminist narrative for the better.
About the Authors
Aspen Shirley. I’m originally from Reno, Nevada, and I’m a passionate full-time psychology student! I enjoy competitive bikini bodybuilding in my free time, and I can eat a whole large pizza by myself. Last, I hope to become a neuropsychologist in the upcoming years (:.
Hi, my name is Shannon Sprute and I am a senior at Pacific majoring in Psychology. Learning about how people, culture, and language are sexist is an important part of being anti-sexist. To me, this project is a step towards shattering the glass ceiling of sexism.
I’m Whitney and I am a junior here at Pacific. I am a psych major and someday I hope to be a therapist. This semester has been unique but with the help of my professors I have learned some valuable skills about how to apply my psych skills in the real world. Using wise interventions and cultural humility I know we can work together to create a better world!
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