folded map

Sense of Direction

I am sure you are all familiar with the gender stereotype that men have better spatial ability than women. Perhaps that is why they refuse to stop for directions. But has it ever been tested scientifically? And if it is true, what is the underlying cause? Are there real brain configuration differences?

My Take

I recently came across this article describing a study from a research team at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Their hypothesis was that the difference emerges from hormonal differences, specifically testosterone. Not brain wiring.

Using fMRI, the researchers saw that men in the study took several shortcuts, oriented themselves more using cardinal directions and used a different part of the brain than the women in the study. But when women got a drop of testosterone under their tongue, several of them were able to orient themselves better in the four cardinal directions.

To test this hypothesis they gave participants testosterone, assigned them to wayfinding tasks in a virtual environment, and measured their brain activity using fMRI.

In the baseline condition, they found some fundamental differences in the strategies that each gender used to complete the tasks. Men were more likely to orient using cardinal directions, allowing them to find shortcuts. Women were more likely to use a turn by turn mental map, navigating using landmarks. This was more reliable (hence no need to ask for directions), but less efficient and less flexible. As a result, men solved 50% more of the tasks.

Further, they found significant differences in the fMRI results. Men used their hippocampi more, an area associated with spatial processing. Women used their frontal areas more.

Then they gave the women testosterone. They used a double blind protocol to eliminate any placebo effects among the participants and coding biases among the observers. Women with testosterone moved partially towards the strategy of the male participants. They used more spatial processing, but the difference was too small to show up in the performance measures. The researchers suspect that more time using testosterone could lead to real performance gains.

Their ultimate objective is not to turn women into men in wayfinding. But there are other populations that could use some help. Alzheimer’s patients, who lose their sense of direction pretty early in the disease development, are a prime candidate. Could testosterone be a potential treatment? Not a cure, but a mitigation? For the price and ease of use, it can’t be beat.

Your Turn

Treading into the treacherous waters of gender stereotypes is bound to get us into a little trouble here, but hopefully you will keep your comments on the constructive side. In your experience do you think the gender difference is legit? Do you think hormones could be the cause? And the solution?

Let us know.

Image Credit: evxan

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