The Big Lie

Can you spot a liar?

Will Girls Ever Rock Misophonia Research?

The sexual politics behind a rare disorder

Once, during a high school chemistry lesson on units of scientific measurement, I embarrassed womanhood by publically asking my teacher, Mrs. Weisbart, how many moles it took to ruin a rose garden. As a result, Mrs. Weisbart used to scream and run in the other direction whenever she saw me coming down the hall.

Now, however, as a middle-aged female misophonia sufferer and freelance journalist, I can empathize with the plight of the chemistry teacher I disrespected, because I love it when bright females appreciate what I’m trying to teach (like the editors at the newly launched Shebooks and here at Psychology Today), and because I have reason to believe that many bright women interested in human behavior are going to be squeezed out of misophonia research.

The problem, as I see it, is that misophonia seems to straddle the two higher education research disciplines of psychology and neuroscience. The latter is mainly a boys club, while the former is very girl-heavy, and in this particular science playground battle, the flag—critical funding from the National Institute of Mental Health--seems to have been captured by the boys.

“Graduate science students at the University of Oregon are neutrally categorized here as ‘brain people or not brain people’, said Rosemary Bernstein, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, “but there is a perception that if you are not a brain person and aren’t doing fMRI research, your study will not be considered sexy enough to get funded by the NIMH.”

Ms. Bernstein, who has done a case study on misophonia that I have previously posted about, wants to have a career in clinical psychology research, and is concerned that it is in jeopardy because the NIMH, with its new focus on uncovering the physiological basis for behavior, is “disproportionately funding brain research.”

Interestingly, Ms. Bernstein said that she, too, hated chemistry in high school, but that she did like biology and was drawn to psychology as a young girl, after the death of her father prompted her to volunteer at a bereavement center. “I was always more interested in observable behavior,” she said “and I found it difficult to wrap my head around something as conceptual as the human brain.” She said, however, that she felt her discomfort may have been caused by socialization that still tends to make young women feel like they are not “math types.”

“It has empirically been shown by one of my fellow graduate students who studies gender and socialization that when women are expected to do worse on math tests, they become so anxious, they actually do perform worse on them,” said Ms. Bernstein. “It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This raised tons of questions in my mind about bright young women like Ms. Bernstein being shut out of misophonia research, not the least of which was: what would it feel like for a female clinical psychology researcher to walk into a chilly fMRI lab without a cardigan and get a chilly reception from a bunch of male neuroscientists who believed her discipline really has no place there.

Fortunately, Heidemarie Laurent, a relatively new addition to the UO clinical psychology faculty, who has also been a principal investigator on two fMRI studies, was willing to answer my primary question:

“I’ve never had any problems because my specialty, affective neuroscience, is more gender-balanced,” said Dr. Laurent, whose physicist father encouraged her to stand up for herself in the science playground. “But you definitely have to get your point across without making a big deal of it, so I have learned to be politely persistent.” Dr. Laurent said the female self-effacement survival strategy can be traced back to high school, where even the girls that were smart enough to be in the advanced science and math classes didn’t speak up unless they were called upon, lest they get an uncool rep for being “bossy.”

And, Dr. Laurent said, even as adults, she gets the impression things are not quite so pleasant for the girls on the cognitive neuroscience side of the blacktop, because the mostly boy researchers can be “a little skeptical of warm and fuzzy” affective neuroscience, which focuses on emotions and interpersonal relationships and tries to make brain research more relevant by acknowledging that each individual is unique (as opposed, I guess, to those overfunded and overhyped fMRI studies of brain function that come to broad, valueless conclusions about humankind in general).

But the NIMH seems to prefer the latter.

“Public funding for affective neuroscience projects is still lagging behind,” said Dr. Laurent, “because it’s a much more complex and nuanced story to tell, and the simpler the story, the easier it is to get funding.” She said that the cognitive neuroscientists seem to be more successful at attracting grant money.

Humph. That doesn’t sound good for us.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK, where I’m told it’s easier to get funding if a grant application is worded just so, a team headed by a cognitive neurologist and led by a male neuroscientist is running the first fMRI study in the world dedicated to misophonia. The principal investigator recently told me via email that conducting the study is a lengthy process, and that the results are not yet in.

But back in the States, Ms. Bernstein offered an idea for making real progress on misophonia research in under ten seconds: “At an integrative clinic with ties to funding through an academic institution and teaching hospital, perhaps a team of researchers, including clinical psychologists, neuroscientists and audiologists, could work together on this disorder,” she said.

And that, Mrs. Weisbart, concludes my attempt at serious scientific inquiry. I hope that this time, it meets with your approval.

P.S. Here’s an extra credit article for all you girl "math types".




The Big Lie