London | Men have a more effective sense of direction and they get to their destination faster than women do, a new study has found. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (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. The men solved 50 per cent more of the tasks than the women. Using Functional MRI (fMRI), researchers saw that the men took several shortcuts, oriented themselves more using cardinal directions and used a different part of the brain than the women in the study.
Men’s sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster, said Carl Pintzka, a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Department of Neuroscience. According to researchers, women and men have different navigational strategies. Men use cardinal directions during navigation to a greater degree.
The study shows that using the cardinal directions is more efficient because it is a more flexible strategy. The destination can be reached faster because the strategy depends less on where you start. In the second step, researchers gave some women testosterone just before they were going to solve the maze puzzles.
This was a different group of women than the group that was compared to men. In this step, 42 women were divided into two groups. 21 of them received a drop of placebo, and 21 got a drop of testosterone under the tongue. 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, Pintzka said. The fMRI images of the brain showed that both men and women use large areas of the brain when they navigate, but some areas were different. The men used the hippocampus more, whereas women used their frontal areas to a greater extent.
The researchers explained the findings in evolutionary terms. 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, Pintzka said.
Almost all brain-related diseases are different in men and women, either in the number of affected individuals or in severity. 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, he added.