Do Men Have a Better Sense of Direction than Women?

HEALTH

A new study indicates that men have better spatial recognition skills, and a more effective strategy at using them. (Tech Times)

Use our resources to introduce spatial recognition strategies to both boys and girls.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in today’s Teachers’ Toolkit.

To test their sense of direction, 42 women were given wayfinding tasks in this virtual environment. The top left image shows a part of the virtual environment. The top right image shows the navigation target at the bottom of the screen. The bottom left image illustrates a wayfinding task. Two points were given for correct direction and one was given for the two adjacent directions. The right image illustrates the task on a 2D overview of the entire virtual environment (not shown to the participants). The correct choice in this case is the arrow straight ahead. Image courtesy Pintzka, Carl W.S. et. al., “Changes in spatial cognition and brain activity after a single dose of testosterone in healthy women” (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

To test their sense of direction, 42 women were given wayfinding tasks in this virtual environment. The top left image shows a part of the virtual environment. The top right image shows the navigation target at the bottom of the screen. The bottom left image illustrates a wayfinding task. Two points were given for correct direction and one was given for the two adjacent directions. The right image illustrates the task on a 2D overview of the entire virtual environment (not shown to the participants). The correct choice is the arrow straight ahead.
Image courtesy Pintzka, Carl W.S. et. al., “Changes in spatial cognition and brain activity after a single dose of testosterone in healthy women” (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

Discussion Ideas

  • Why did the new study conclude that men have a better sense of direction than women?
    • Well, it really didn’t. The study concluded that women given a dose of a male hormone were able to reach destinations more quickly than women who were not given the hormone.

 

  • How was the study conducted?
    • 1. Forty-two women were chosen for the test. All the women were right-handed, aged between 19 and 30, and used oral contraceptives. (The birth control pills allowed researchers to synchronize the women’s hormone levels.) Researchers always want to use test subjects that share many characteristics, so that test results can be narrowed to a short range of influences. In this case, results would not be determined by whether left-handed or right-handed women were better at navigation, or whether older or younger women were better at it.
    • 2. The women were administered either a tiny, safe dose of testosterone (a male hormone) or a placebo.
    • 3. The women familiarized themselves with a virtual environment.
    • 4. The women were given wayfinding or navigational tasks within that virtual environment.
    • 5. As the women worked to complete the tasks, their brains were (safely) scanned using fMRI technology. (fMRI stands for functional magnetic resonance imaging. fMRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves to measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.) The fMRI scans allowed researchers to see what parts of their brains the women were using to work on the wayfinding task.

 

  • Why does the study say men have a better sense of direction than women, when no men were involved in testing the study?
    • Testosterone, a male hormone, was found to trigger (or at least be associated with) use of the hippocampus during navigation activities. The hippocampi (humans have two) are a crucial part of the brain, strongly associated with both spatial recognition and memory retention.

 

  • What was the point of this study—to prove that men are better at navigation than women?
    • No. The study was a part of research into Alzheimer’s disease, which devastates the hippocampus and skills associated with it. Learn more about Alzheimer’s here.
      • Spatial recognition is one of the first skills devastated by Alzheimer’s, which afflicts more women than men. “Since we know that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, there might be something related to sex hormones that is harmful,” says the study’s lead author.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Tech Times: Study Says Men Have Better Sense Of Direction Than Women

Nat Geo: Maps of Familiar Places

(extra credit!) Behavioural Brain Research: Changes in spatial cognition and brain activity after a single dose of testosterone in healthy women

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