Brain and Body

Do Men Really Have a Better Sense of Direction Than Women?

December 8, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Young woman in the countryside looking at a map. Is she lost?
Photo credit: Joe Hunt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In a new study, women who were given a drop of testosterone performed better on navigational tests.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) think they may finally have some scientific evidence to support the time-old theory that men have a better sense of direction than women. They decided to determine whether this claim is more linked to sex hormones or cultural conditioning, and came to an interesting finding about testosterone’s role in navigational skills.

In the first part of the study, the researchers used fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) to scan the brains of men and women as they navigated through a virtual environment. The male participants took several shortcuts and oriented themselves more using cardinal directions (North, East, South, West), while the women were more likely to devise a route in their heads.

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For instance, "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'," Carl Pintzka, a medical doctor and PhD candidate at NTNU's Department of Neuroscience, explained in the press release.  

Further, the men used a different part of their brain when performing navigational tasks than women — men used the hippocampus more, while women used their frontal areas.

The men solved 50 percent more of the tasks than women. "Men's sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster,” says Pintzka. He says that using cardinal directions is more efficient since the strategy is more flexible and depends less on a certain starting point.

Additionally, Pintzka explains that there’s actually an evolutionary purpose behind men and women’s different senses of direction:

“In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers. Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently,” Pintzka says. “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.”

In the second phase of the study, the researchers decided to test out the underlying hormonal factors in navigational skills. Women were split into two groups: one which received a drop of testosterone under their tongues and one which received a placebo drop. The study was also double-blinded, meaning that neither the women or Pintzka knew who got what.

"We hoped that they would be able to solve more tasks, but they didn't,” Pintzka explains. “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.”

While the dose of testosterone certainly encouraged improvements in certain areas, the sex hormone isn’t the only key to a better sense of direction. Plus, it’s worth mentioning that the study size was relatively small — only 21 women received the drop of testosterone while 21 received the placebo.

However, the researchers think that sex hormones may be able to explain some of the underlying factors in Alzheimer’s. According to the press release, one of the first symptoms of the disease is losing one’s sense of direction.

"Almost all brain-related diseases are different in men and women, either in the number of affected individuals or in severity,” says Pintzka. “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.”

Hopefully by further researching how men and women use different brain areas and strategies to navigate, scientists will unearth a new understanding of how Alzheimer’s develops. Perhaps these discoveries could lead to new coping strategies for victims of the disease, and maybe even lead to a final explanation for the gender-based differences in sense of direction.

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