Men have often argued that they are the superior sex when it comes to sense of direction, and many previous studies have backed them up. Now a new study has not only provided evidence to support previous research but has also shown that the male sex hormone testosterone could be the reason why men are indeed better at navigating.
Wanting to explore if the reason behind a better sense of direction was due to sex hormones or cultural conditioning, or perhaps something else, a team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) first asked a group of 18 male and 18 female participants to find their way around a virtual maze using 3D goggles and a joystick. The participants were given navigational tasts to complete from different starting points while in the maze, such as "find the yellow car." During the task the researchers continuously recorded images of participants' brains using an MRI scanner to monitor brain activity.
The results showed that men performed better than women, solving 50 per cent more of the tasks by taking more short cuts and using cardinal directions, the points of North, East, South and West, to orient themselves. The women used a different strategy, often using a route to get to their destination, rather than cardinal directions
The study's author, Carl Pintzka, concludied that "Men's sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster."
In the next step of Pintzka's research, a different group of 42 female participants was split into two groups. Twenty-one received a drop of testosterone on the tongue before taking part in the task, and 21 received a placebo. Many of the women who had received the testerorone performed better than the ones who had not. Although they were unable to solve more tasks, they were better able to use cardinal directions, like the men in the earlier study.
The research also showed that men and women use different areas of their brain when navigating, with men using the hippocampus—the area of the brain need to use cardinal directions—more than women.
As losing one's sense of direction is one of the first symptoms in Alzheimer's disease, Pintzka hopes his studies could help researchers to better understand the development of the disease, and—as twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Alzheimer's—how it could possibly be related to the sex hormones.