Cognitive sex differences, the nature of learning and dealing with traumatic events were just a few of the topics covered at the annual Eastern Psychological Association meeting in Baltimore, March 14 and 15.

APA President-elect Diane Halpern, PhD, spoke about cognitive differences between males and females, something she called a "dangerous topic" because of the pitfalls of taking any one research study and applying it to the relative intelligence of one sex over the other.

"Research into many questions about sex differences and similarities in intelligence is fraught with political minefields and emotional rhetoric from all ends of the political spectrum," said Halpern, professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. "But, research is the only way we can distinguish between those stereotypes that have some basis in fact and those that don't."

Talk about differences can obscure the fact that women and men are similar in many more ways than different, Halpern said. Also deceptive, she said, is the tendency to think about differences as permanent and immutable, when in fact the size and nature of sex differences vary across life spans and environments.

She pointed out that some practical differences between men and women remain, including:

  • The wage gap. In 2000, full-time female workers still earned about 73 percent of what comparable male workers earned.

  • Poverty. A significantly greater proportion of women live in poverty then men, with single mothers and their children among the poorest of the poor.

  • Corporate positions of power. Women hold only 5 percent of the highest company officer positions.

  • Crime statistics. Approximately 95 percent of prisoners in the United States are men.

Statistics like these can be deceptively simple, and research into their true meaning must be done very carefully, Halpern noted. Research into these issues "can be incredibly dangerous if not done responsibly," Halpern said. "But it'll also be incredibly rewarding."

Current research, reviewed in her book "Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities" (Erlbaum Lawrence Associates, 1999), reveals some intricate differences between the sexes, Halpern said. For example, women score higher on tests of memory, production and comprehension of complex prose, fine motor tasks and speech articulation. Men score higher on tests of fluid reasoning, tasks that involve objects that are moving, tasks that require transformations of objects and tasks that require aiming. She also said females on average get better grades in every subject in school, and males are the majority among both gifted and mentally disabled populations. There are myriad suggested reasons for these differences, ranging from the effect of hormones and brain anatomy to the environmental factors of being raised as a girl or boy, Halpern said.

"All the reasons people give for cognitive differences are both right and wrong," Halpern added. "We cannot expect to find simple answers to what are very difficult questions."

Learning mechanisms

One of the factors mentioned by Halpern--how we learn--was discussed at length by psychology professor Randy Gallistel, PhD, of Rutgers University. He spoke on two theories of how people and animals learn--a direct read-write memory with a mechanism yet to be discovered and an associative memory that rewires the brain to make it behave more adaptively.

Gallistel argued that a read-write memory mechanism for recording information exists in the brain. Direct reckoning, or the ability of animals to calculate their position by adding up successive movements, is evidence of read-write memory, he said.

"Ants and bees store the vectors of their movements and use them to control subsequent foraging," Gallistel said. "The bees go on to translate this information through a 'waggle dance' that tells other bees where to find food." With an associative memory, "There's no way for the bees to store the memory and translate it," he said, because such a memory lacks a read-write mechanism.

"It's hard to see how someone could watch the behavioral effects without recognizing that they require the storage of information about direction, distance, duration and so on," Gallistel added.

However, researchers are not yet sure where or how to look for the mechanism that allows for direct memory in the nervous system, he said.

"When we find how it is stored in the mechanism, it will transform our understanding of how the brain works, much like Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA transformed our understanding of cellular biochemistry," Gallistel said.

Coping with traumatic events

Another look into how brain processes work was provided by psychology professor Roxane Cohen Silver, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine. She described two decades of research into psychological reactions to traumatic events, including spinal cord injury, the loss of an infant to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, as well as long-term responses of survivors of father-daughter incest and Vietnam War veterans.

"We found that the results didn't quite fit the mold," Silver said. "That, in fact, caused us to question the whole mold."

Her research revealed that many people appeared to be less distressed than expected and many responded with pronounced distress for far longer than expected.

"In many cases, we found that time really doesn't bring resolution as the conventional wisdom would imply," Silver said. "But in many cases it was also normal for victims to recover quickly."

Silver's research indicates that some victims of trauma even report frequent and intense feelings of positive emotion shortly after trauma. Victims of spinal cord injury often focus on the support they get from family and friends or unrelated good events--such as winning the lottery--to achieve this sense of positive emotion, she said.

Possible explanations for that quick return to positive emotions include a rapid return to baseline emotional state, a narrowing of perceptual focus and a shift in the standard used to judge happiness or sadness.

"Our long-held myths about how a person should react to a traumatic event don't seem to account for the variability of reactions," Silver said. "This is something that's important for people who work with trauma victims to examine."

Further Reading

For information on the Eastern Psychological Association, go to www.easternpsychological.org.