3D maze study finds men navigate better than women

Norwegian University of Science and Technology researchers have found that men are generally more efficient than women at navigating from one location to another, and the reason is linked to differences in how their brains handle the task. This difference gives women their own advantage, too: when it comes to finding an object within a particular location, women perform better than men.

Though past research has shown that men are usually better at certain spatial tasks that women, the exact reason why hasn't been clear — it could be something related to culture, to hormones, or something else entirely. In pursuit of the answer, researchers tasked 18 male and 18 female participants with navigating a 3D maze.

The participants donned goggles and used joysticks to navigate. Everyone was given an hour to travel around the maze and learn its layout. After the hour was up, participants were monitored using fMRI while completing navigation-related tasks. A total of 45 tasks were issued, with each having 30 seconds to complete it. One example of a task was locating a specific item while starting at different areas within the map.

During this initial part of the study, researchers found that male participants solved 50% more tasks. This is due to differences in how men and women navigate. The researchers found that men use cardinal navigation more often than women; this involves moving in the general direction of the desired location, with the exact path taken to get there being somewhat fluid and subject to change.

Female participants, however, were more likely to orient themselves along a specific route even if that route ended up taking more time.

According to the fMRI scans, women use the frontal regions of the brain more than men, while men use the hippocampus more...something that wasn't surprising given the hippocampus' role in cardinal navigation. Using the frontal regions of the brain comes with its own perks, though.

According to researcher Carl Pintzka:

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

When administered testosterone drops under the tongue, scans of female participants showed an increased utilization of the hippocampus, and a boost in knowledge about the maze's layout.

SOURCE: EurekAlert