Men are infamous for never asking for directions, but maybe it’s because they don’t have to. New research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology claims men have a better sense of direction than women.
In the study, researchers used fMRI (a neuroimaging machine that uses MRI technology to measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow) to examine men and women who performed wayfinding tasks in a large virtual environment in which they wore 3D goggles and used a joystick to orient themselves. While lying in the fMRI machine, they were given 45 navigation tasks—such as “Find the yellow car”—in the maze from different starting points, and were allotted 30 seconds for each task. The 18 men and 18 women were first given an hour to learn the layout of the maze before the scanning session began.
Overall, the men solved 50 percent more of the tasks than the women.
The men took several shortcuts and oriented themselves more using cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) than the women in the study. That’s because men and women have different navigational strategies, the researchers explain. Let's say both are going to a post office. Men will follow the general direction where it's located, whereas women will think in terms of landmarks—going past the hairdresser, up the street, then turning right after the store.
The men also used a different part of their brain. They activated their hippocampus more (which is necessary for cardinal directions), while women used the frontal areas of their brains.
"In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers,” study author Carl Pintzka, M.D. said in a press release. “Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently. In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house," Pintzka said.
But researchers decided to explore how administering testosterone to women would affect their ability to navigate and perform wayfinding tasks. The researchers conducted a double-blind study using an entirely separate group of women (42 in total), divided in two. Twenty-one of them received a drop of placebo, and 21 received a drop of testosterone under the tongue.
Some (they don’t indicate the percentage) of the women who received testosterone were able to orient themselves better in the four cardinal directions, demonstrate better knowledge of the maze’s layout, and use the hippocampus to a greater extent. But for the most part, the women weren’t able to solve more tasks.
Note of advice: If your insistence against asking for directions has caused countless fights with your girlfriend or wife in the past, maybe pass on the opportunity to boast these study results and your natural directional superiority. Just imagine the fights you’ll get into for rubbing that in her face…