Male Brain Excels in Navigation Study

N E W   Y O R K, March 20, 2001 -- Men are generally better than women at finding

their way in unfamiliar settings, and use different parts of the

brain to do it, a study suggests.

As for why men can’t seem to ask for directions, however, thatwill have to await another study.

The findings add a biological counterpart to prior research thatindicated men and women tend to use different strategies tonavigate.

In the newer experiment, researchers scanned the brains of 12men and 12 women as they tried to escape a three-dimensionalvirtual-reality maze. The volunteers pushed buttons to move theirvirtual selves left, right or ahead.

Results Fit With Previous Studies

In the real world, that might be like trying to find a specificplace in an unfamiliar city, said neurologist Dr. Matthias Riepe ofthe University of Ulm in Germany.

The men got out of the maze in an average of 2 minutes and 22seconds, vs. an average of 3 minutes and 16 seconds for thewomen. That fits with previous studies in animals and people thatsuggest males navigate better in an unfamiliar environment.

The brain scans found that while both sexes used some of thesame parts of the brain for the task, there were also somedifferences. Riepe and colleagues describe the results in the Aprilissue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

One difference involved the hippocampus, a banana-shapedstructure deep in the brain that is crucial for navigation. Justlast week, other scientists reported that male London taxi driversshow structural changes in the hippocampus, apparently because oftheir professional experience.

People have a hippocampus in each side of the brain. Riepe’sstudy found that both sexes used the right hippocampus innegotiating the maze. But only men used the left hippocampus.Conversely, women used an outer part of the brain called the rightprefrontal cortex, while men in the study didn’t.

That might reflect differences in how men and women handleinformation about the space around them, Riepe and colleagues said.

Experience Changes Brain

Prior work suggests that women rely mostly on landmarks tonavigate (“Turn right at the drugstore, then left at thegrocery”) while men lean toward using geometry, as one wouldfigure from a map (“The museum should be over that way”).

The women’s activity in the cortex might reflect the effort ofkeeping landmark cues in mind, while the hippocampus activity inthe men might be needed for the geometric approach, the researcherssaid.

Riepe said his study could not explore whether the braindifferences are learned or biologically programmed. But he said hesuspects the latter, because they also appear in rats.

Diane Halpern, a psychologist at California State University inSan Bernardino and an expert on gender differences in thinking,noted that sex differences in brain activity have been observed forother tasks, such as reading.

So it’s not surprising to find another example, she said. Suchdifferences probably result from both experience and programmedinfluences, because the brain changes in response to experience,Halpern said.

She also stressed that women generally outperform men in somemental tasks — such as creating of a list of words that begin witha given letter — so one can’t say that men are generally smarterthan women.

Riepe said his study couldn’t explain the popular notion thatmen are more reluctant than women to ask for directions when lost.

“That’s a different story, I think,” he said.