Women's Hockey and Hardwiring

I'll admit it: I don't watch a lot of women's team sports. But I happened to catch the thrilling Olympic hockey final, and in spite of my disappointment for Team USA, I was blown away to see those incredibly tough women on both sides fight it out for Olympic gold.

The reason for my fascination: I study gender effects on the brain and am often battling claims about so-called "hardwired" male-female differences. You know, the idea that women dislike engineering and men don't cry because of some evolutionarily-selected, hormonally-fixed circuits in our brains. Author Christina Hoff-Sommers has used such explanations to explain why women opt-in to lower paying careers, and boys hate reading. Parenting guru Michael Gurian pitches a similar, "nature-based" view to argue that boys and girls learn differently and therefore need entirely different classrooms to master grammar and algebra.

The alternative explanation, of course, is "nurture," and the idea that gender differences are more a product of experience and socialization than innate brain wiring. In neuroscience, we refer to this as neuroplasticity -- the actual re-molding of neural circuits that happens every time you kiss a baby doll, build a LEGO spaceship, launch yourself into a triple axel, or fly ahead of competitors in ski cross.

Nowhere is this plasticity more evident than in women's athletic advances over the past 40 years. We used to hear that women aren't physical or competitive or aggressive enough to dedicate themselves to sport. But c'mon, did you see those triumphant Canadians and devastated Americans after their sudden-death overtime? Underneath the ponytails and eyeliner, the intensity, elation and frustration were absolutely identical to male athletes.

Of course, sport is hardly the place to argue that women and men are identical. Men will always be taller, stronger and faster than women (although some foresee women beating men in ultramarathoning). The male body has greater muscular strength and aerobic capacity than the female body, both on average and among elite performers. But the brain is another thing, and I fail to see any evidence that the drive to endure punishing workouts, the resilience to overcome losses and injuries, and the competitiveness to be the world's best differs between men and women, whether the sport is biathlon or bobsled, Super G or ice dancing.

Then again, it is hard to truly know how men and women stack up athletically, for the simple reason that they rarely compete against each other. When you see the world's top 10 downhill racers all ski to the finish within one second of each other in a two-minute race, you realize that competition is everything in athletic advancement. Since women never actually compete against men in sport, they haven't yet had the same incentive to push the limits of human performance.

In their book, Playing with the Boys, Eileen McDonagh and Laura Pappano argue that, for all the opportunity it has given girls and women, gender segregation in sport is actually hampering female advancement and insuring that female athletes are relegated to second-class status. The fact is, girls can compete with boys perfectly well before puberty, and later co-ed competition may be the best way to develop female athletic potential to its fullest.

The number of girls participating in sports has increased tenfold since the 1972 passage of Title IX, so it no longer seems "unnatural" for women to be fierce and aggressive and competitive. Male or female, the human nervous system is far from hardwired but has amazing potential to be tapped and trained to perfection, assuming the unparalleled motivation, practice and competition that our quadrennial Olympic feast cultivates.