Groundbreaking and important - I also much appreciated Baron-Cohen's terse writing style; there's a lot of information packed into this relatively short book, so it's not necessarily a quick read. In shorthand, Baron-Cohen's theory is one of two different brain types, signified by prominent ability to empathize (type E) and prominent ability to systemize (type S), and the findings are that a larger percentage of females score higher than males in empathizing, while a larger percentage of males score higher than females in systemizing. Since females typically fall within the first group and males typically fall within the latter, Baron-Cohen speaks about the male and the female brain. Further, he shows that there's an extreme variant of the systemizing type, which he dubs the extreme male brain, encompassing those within the autism spectrum, ranging from severe cases to high functioning ones, and including those with Asperger syndrome. This variation in the male brain is linked to different levels of pre-natal testosterone.
I found this a very intriguing read, and his arguments are meticulously backed up with research data ranging from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology. Baron-Cohen is not contending that biology is everything, but he is providing strong evidence that those above mentioned differences are innate, as well as discussing the ways that genes and evolution have shaped our brains. I was particularly struck by his argument about the many ways low empathy in men has been evolutionary adaptive, a crucial point in this discussion. I gather it would be useful for a reader to have some background knowledge of evolutionary psychology before reading this book, though it is not really necessary.
I also found this book helpful on a personal level. Even though I did already belong to the "nature camp", there was a lot of insights to be gained from this book, and I am grateful to Baron-Cohen for a couple of eureka moments during the course of the read. It also struck me while reading how very pernicious the extreme nurture stance can be since it is instrumental in alienating both men and women from themselves. It's a bit like Scholasticism vs. Empiricism or Creationism contra Darwinism: if you totally downplay biology all you're really left with is dogma or wishful thinking.
Finally, the last three chapters are focusing directly on the autism spectrum, and there's no doubting the importance of Baron-Cohen's research for those that fall within this group. There's also a portrait of Richards Borcherds, a mathematician who has been awarded the Fields Medal; a scientist who has many autistic traits (a few others, e.g. Paul Dirac and Michael Ventris, are also mentioned), though not severe enough to be given an Asperger syndrome diagnosis - but still an example of the extreme male mind. What Baron-Cohen illustrates with showing the fairly slight differences between highly gifted (and high functioning) individuals and others within the large span, and sliding scale, of the autism spectrum is that the extreme male mind is mainly an extreme variant of male intelligence (as was suggested by Hans Asperger already in 1944), and that the Asperger syndrome could better be treated as a difference than a disability.
Given the existence of the extreme male brain, there should also be found examples of the extreme female brain - but being empathizing in the extreme is not necessarily maladaptive (as with the autism spectrum), so while the extreme version of the male brain is relatively easy to locate, the female counterpart is most likely well integrated into society. It is at least not hard to imagine that there are hyperemphatic people. Baron-Cohen also refers to this as systemblindness, because their systemizing abilites would be impaired - also not too hard to imagine because you can always rely on other people in to help you out. The extreme male brain, on the other end of the scale, is characterized by mindblindness, meaning that they are not aware of other people's mental states. The latter was also the topic his earlier book (1995.) Baron-Cohen ends this book with the following: "Society at present is likely to be biased toward accepting the extreme female brain and stigmatizes the extreme male brain. Fortunately, the modern age of electronics, science, engineering and gadgets means that there are more openings now for the extreme male brain to flourish and be valued. My hope is that the stigmatising will soon be history."
The Appendix contains some very useful tests to a.o. determine your EQ (Empathy Quotient) and SQ (Systemizing Quotient) and also AQ (Autism Spectrum Quotient.) Though I had an inkling about what my own results might show, I was still a bit surprised by the results (which needless to say should be taken with a grain of salt). I got a lot out of this book - in fact much more than I had gathered, and I am looking forward to reading more of Baron-Cohen's books.
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