Men have a better sense of direction than women, a new study finds.
But putting some testosterone under women’s tongues improves their performance.
This suggests that men’s advantage at navigation is more than a stereotype or cultural belief, but has some biological basis.
The research had men and women trying to find their way around a maze in virtual reality.
Dr Carl Pintzka, who led the study, explained the main result:
“Men’s sense of direction was more effective.
They quite simply got to their destination faster.”
Men solved 50% more of the navigational tasks than women.
The reason is partly because men and women use different strategies.
Men tend to use cardinal directions more: north, east, south and west.
Women, though, tend to work out a route.
Dr Pintzka explained:
“If they’re going to the Student Society building in Trondheim, for example, men usually go in the general direction where it’s located.
Women usually orient themselves along a route to get there, for example, ‘go past the hairdresser and then up the street and turn right after the store’,”
It turns out that going in the general direction is a better strategy because it is more flexible.
On the other hand, following a known route obviously depends on where you start — so it’s not as flexible.
The scientists also scanned men’s and women’s brains to look for differences.
The scans revealed that men tended to use their hippocampus more for navigation, while women relied on their frontal lobes.
Dr Pintzka said:
“…other researchers have documented that women are better at finding objects locally than men.
In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house.”
In a second stage of the study, some women were given testosterone to try and boost their performance.
This did help women’s navigational performance, but not much, Dr Pintzka said:
“We hoped that they would be able to solve more tasks, but they didn’t.
But they had improved knowledge of the layout of the maze.
And they used the hippocampus to a greater extent, which tends to be used more by men for navigating.”
Sense of direction could provide a clue as to how to treat some brain diseases, Dr Pintzka said:
“Almost all brain-related diseases are different in men and women, either in the number of affected individuals or in severity.
Therefore, something is likely protecting or harming people of one sex.
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.”
The study was published in the journal Behaviour Brain Research (Pintzka et al., 2015).
Directions image from Shutterstock