Confirming stereotypes, a new study has found that men have a more effective sense of direction and are faster at finding their destination than women.
The researchers said that the findings can be explained in evolutionary terms. “In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers. Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently,” said Carl Pintzka, a medical doctor and PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology in in Trondheim.
“For instance, 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,” Pintzka noted.
The researchers decided to explore how much sex hormones affect navigation skills by administering testosterone to women and testing how they performed in way-finding tasks in a virtual environment.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging or 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 cardinal directions.
“Men’s sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster,” Pintzka said.
Pintzka used an MRI scanner to see whether there are any differences in brain activity when men and women orient themselves.
Using 3D goggles and a joystick, the participants had to orient themselves in a very large virtual maze while functional images of their brains were continuously recorded. Eighteen men and 18 women took an hour to learn the layout of the maze before the scanning session. In the MRI scanner, they were given 30 seconds for each of the 45 navigation tasks. One of the tasks, for example, was to “find the yellow car” from different starting points.
The men solved 50 per cent more tasks than the women.
The study appeared in the journal Behavioral Brain Research.