In short:

  • A scientific study with very poor methodology says they cannot decide if cognitive functions of the brain are affected by periods or not.
  • Media distorted this claim completely and teld women that it is all in their head, but not in their brain.
  • The brain is indeed modulated by menstrual hormones.
  • Patriarchy and feminism have entered a dangerous short-circuit.

 

Women’s brain is not affected by hormones, or is it?

Many websites and newspapers, including The Times and The Daily Mail, are pointing out today (4 July 2017) that moody women cannot blame their period, according to the “largest and longest study of its kind” on how sexual hormones influence cognitive functions of women’s brain.

However, if you look beyond the title, a different story emerges.

A woman staring in disbelief

Why it is important to go beyond titles and look at the methodology

As any scientist knows, it is the methodology that tells you the most about the quality of the science at hand.

The “largest and longest study of its kind” monitored TWO menstrual cycles. Blinded by this unprecedented insight from the largest pool ever, a staggering amount 68 women, researchers from Hanover and Zurich gathered to announce that period brain is not a thing: if you feel moody, it is because you are a moody woman.

“In the present study we found no consistent and meaningful associations between prefrontal cognitive functioning and fluctuations in hormone levels (…) we suggest that caution is warranted when conclusions are made for specific hormonal effects on cognitive functioning.”

They suggest caution, and, boy, it’s in order! If you monitor a relatively small pool of population, and for only two menstrual cycles, caution is indeed in order. The methodology is poor, too poor to draw any conclusion.

Journalists lack the scientific knowledge to read scientific papers and have been known to exaggerate or completely misinterpret data. Some Twitter accounts are entirely dedicated to this problem, and they do it with great irony and determination (@justsayinmice by James Heathers is a funny and well-crafted example).

Methodology, mistakes, myths and malice

This “longest and largest study of its kind” presents a second major problem.

Researchers did find modular changes in cognitive functions during the first cycle. However anecdotal evidence was not confirmed during the second cycle. Unfortunately, they did not think of recording three cycles to prevent the impasse.

A monkey looking embarassed

On more general terms, media and their titles should stop perpetuating myths of whining women. Did you notice that the study is about cognitive functions like “visuospacial memory, attention, cognitive bias” and not “moodiness”?

“Moody women cannot blame time of the month” – Daily Mail 

Moodiness is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as the quality of changing your moods suddenly and becoming angry or unhappy easily. The synonyms listed by Roget’s Thesaurus for “moody” are: sulky, capricious, changeable, erratic, fickle, etc.

“La donna è mobile, qual piuma al vento” Il rigoletto

“Period brain’ is a myth: Biggest study of its kind reveals the time of the month does not affect a woman’s mental agility” – Daily Mail online 

“No such thing as ‘period brain’ scientists find” – The Times 

“Menstruation doesn’t change how your brain works — period” – Eureka Alert

Pity it is not true. We have already seen how the study is inconclusive: one month there were changes, but they could not be confirmed the second month. So?

The meta-meaning here is: dear women, you are making up excuses. Excuses for what, one wonders. Women are still going to work, taking care of themselves and the house, studying and doing sports. Anything you do, women can do it bleeding. But is there a price to pay?

 

Poster image "Anything you do, women can do it bleeding"

What science really tells us about cycles and the price women are paying

Science and medicine, as well as athletes and yogi know very well that there is a phase in each cycle when energies are not manifested as usual and other forces are at play: sleep, empty lungs (just before inhalation), winter, are just but a few equivalents of menstruation in the respective cycles – circadian clock, breathing and seasons. These are not metaphors, but physiological equivalences.

Even neurobiologist know and say that the brain has a “healing phase” of 15 minutes where the brain wave is flat and some activities become difficult to perform, because others should have precedence.

To say that women during menstruation are not affected is equivalent to say that during the night your brain is not affected, and that if keeping awake bothers you, it is not because you should sleep, it is because you have a moody personality.

 

Hormones do change how the brain works

It is well known that estrogen and progesterone influence brain receptors and mental functioning in the follicular and luteal phase. The changes at ovulation are also well documented, and any woman who is charting her menstrual cycle is well aware of them. Indeed, we use can use them to pursue our objectives.

One does not need to wonder too long to understand the subtle flavor of media titles above: it is the stench of the stigma imposed on menstrual blood. The titles above take a whole new flavor. They are saying that you are just a bitch without excuse.

“It’s all in your head, sorry, I mean, it is not in your head. You are just wrong, ok?”

One long standing problem is that the patriarchy has diminished women by telling them that “it’s all in your head” no matter what women were trying to bring up. Do you appreciate the irony of the titles above? Enjoy it slowly and regularly.

I wonder what Mr. Putin could add to the conversation, probably that it’s not your fault if you have bad days, in the end you are a just woman (Guardian, 8 June 2017).

An old and bad kept man making faces

The fear of some feminists could unintentionally damage us all

Feminism, on the other hand, or better yet, some feminists, are fighting hard against the notion that menstrual hormones modulate female brains. They are scared that this could be used against women. Indeed, it has been used against women. However, this is a short-circuit. We should be very careful not to deny a very empowering truth just because it is misunderstood and misused.

Feminists should embrace natural cycles, recognize that women are not the only cyclical beings, and reclaim what has been denied so far: a monthly routine that is shaped like our daily and weekly routines, with days and hours dedicated to pushing hard and resting.

This would be a true period r(E)volution! Can you imagine what kind of imagination and talents this routine could unleash? If you suffer from asthma or sleep disorders you can immediately understand what I mean.