Women in Science

I was surprised that the design of math and science curricula was not addressed in the article “Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement,” by Diane F. Halpern, Camilla P. Benbow, David C. Geary, Ruben C. Gur, Janet Shibley Hyde and Morton Ann Gernsbacher. Traditionally, instruction in these fields has almost exclusively used a method of thought and communication that appeals more strongly to males than females.

Your article raised the issue of differing visuospatial skills between genders. It may not be the case that male minds more easily grasp the information being disseminated; it is possible that how this information is presented can make a difference in skill sets. Males have dominated the fields of science and math for centuries, and the manner in which they have undertaken research, compiled educational texts and designed curricula has affected how children are taught this information and, therefore, how they respond to it.

Rachel Lindley
Edmonton, Alberta

Sex, Math and Scientific Achievement” was very disappointing in an otherwise enjoyable publication. Your highly unscientific opinion that social psychologists have decided that “the overt sexism that existed decades ago in the U.S. and in many other countries is now rare” is simply laughable. Stating this puts the phenomenon of lower female participation in the sciences squarely on women’s shoulders.

I realize that objectivity is important when reporting scientific data. Nevertheless, in playing it safe with this article, the authors provide readers with little (if any) enlightenment on the topic. And in this regard, they are no better than profoundly misogynist, ignorant and biased individuals such as Larry Summers.

Name withheld
Mountain View, Calif.

Having read more than a few articles by various researchers on the topic of the gender gap in science and math careers, I cannot sit back any longer. These researchers all seem to miss a potentially significant variable—the impact of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Here is a sex difference for the authors to discuss: autism in general has an approximate 4 to 1 ratio of males to females. At the high-functioning end of the spectrum, such as among those of us with Asperger’s syndrome, the ratio is even greater.

“Normal” people usually have an even spread of abilities, whereas those of us with high-functioning ASD tend to have a very uneven spread of abilities. Our visuospatial skills are usually better than average, whereas our social-verbal skills tend to be worse than average. Often these abilities are much better and much worse, respectively. As such, those of us “Aspies” who succeed tend to be drawn toward deterministic fields of endeavor in which solutions are black-and-white, such as engineering, computers, math and physics—and most of us are men.

Larry D. Moody
via e-mail

I would like to make a recommendation. Women typically handle the family finances and are quite gifted at managing money in hard economic times. Working women, however, are still being paid roughly 77 percent of what men are paid for similar jobs. Given that women are acutely aware of finance, universities might consider offering their science degrees to women at a 23 percent tuition discount. An economic incentive might be the right solution.

Ola Marra Cook
Campbell, Calif.

Family Values

InInside the Terrorist Mind,” Annette Schaefer rightly notes that most terrorists are not mentally ill. I would like to add that there is a common family dynamic found in many individual histories of male terrorists: the authoritarian family, which I discuss in my article “‘I Came with a Sword on Judgment Day’: A Psychoanalytic Look at Terrorist Enactments” (Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 94, No. 5; October 2007).

Some idealistic young men raised in authoritarian families may identify with the poor and needy and search to establish an equitable society. Although they may be seeking to correct social injustice, they also need to find a way to express their rage toward their fathers, who have humiliated and abused them. That rage can morph into explosive tragedies.

Women in these families are often deemed “soft” and incompetent, as are the peaceful methods that can be used toward establishing justice. Nonviolent means are rejected.

Lynn Somerstein
New York City

Impairment Envy

I was pleased to see an article about body integrity identity disorder (BIID)—“Amputee Envy,” by Sabine Mueller—in Scientific American Mind.

As someone who has BIID, and as an advocate for BIID sufferers, I was disappointed that the author discussed only amputation as a focus of BIID, ignoring the fact that BIID sufferers may require other impairments, such as paralysis (which is my need), blindness or deafness. Michael First of Columbia University is currently conducting research that builds on his studies cited in your article. We expect him to prove that these nonamputation needs indeed exist as part of BIID.

I have made additional, detailed comments about the article online at
http://biid-info.org/Amputee_Envy. I welcome further discussion.

Sean O’Connor
via e-mail

Mirror Power

InLiving with Ghostly Limbs,” Miguel Nicolelis generously cites our original experiments, first reported in 1994, on the use of visual feedback to treat phantom-limb pain and stroke-related paralysis. He points out correctly that although many patients report relief from phantom pain after using visual feedback (whether with mirrors or virtual reality), some do not. Several recent studies suggest, however, that a substantial number of patients in fact show striking—sometimes complete—recovery from pain.

In a study by Jack Tsao’s group at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, for example, three groups of about eight patients each received one of three treatments: mirror feedback, a placebo involving guided visual imagery or a placebo using an opaque plate instead of a mirror. All patients who used mirror feedback experienced a striking reduction in pain—almost total elimination—after four weeks. The groups who received the placebo treatments showed an increase in pain. These patients were then switched to mirror feedback, and four weeks later they also felt less pain.

In 1994 we also suggested (and in 1999, with Eric Altschuler, we showed experimentally) that visual feedback can help recovery from stroke; this finding, too, was confirmed in subsequent studies, such as those by Gneş Yavuzer of Ankara University in Turkey.

A paradigm shift is under way. Instead of being composed of hardwired modules (such as a “pain module” or “vision module”), the brain is made up of highly malleable modules that are in a state of dynamic equilibrium with sensory inputs and with one another. Disease often results from shifts in this equilibrium rather than the permanent destruction of neural tissue. Sometimes equilibrium can be restored with as simple a procedure as using a mirror to hit a “reset” button.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran
University of California, San Diego

Migraine’s Triggers

As a neurologist, I read with interest Rodger A. Sanders’s story about how his wife developed a migraine after she performed the Ramachandrans’ mirror experiment [“Mirror-Induced Migraine,” Letters]. Sanders asked if he and his wife had found a new cause for migraines.

Migraine triggers include odors, flashbulbs, sunlight reflecting off water, loud noises, and even striped or checkered patterns. One of my patients became violently ill when she saw her reflection in a distorting mirror. Sensory inputs are known to cause migraines; although Sanders’s story is interesting, it is not news.

Karen P. Lauze
Portsmouth, N.H.