Six months ago, I described the “folly” of asking your boyfriend or husband what he’s thinking about at any given moment. It’s not that men are incapable of deep thought; it’s just that when you notice us staring pensively at nothing in particular, we are likely engrossed in a subject so trivial as to not deserve mention. Answers range from “the stupidity of fish” to “a sandwich I ate earlier” to “the fact that Houston Astros catcher Craig Biggio got hit by 34 pitches in 1997.”
However, there’s always a chance we do have something special on our minds. That’s because dudes possess a cognitive skill that brings us great satisfaction — one we never grow tired of exercising. Yes, men have been known to mentally rotate objects for hours at a stretch.
Confused? I don’t blame you. At first blush, there seems to be minimal benefit in imagining 3D shapes and how they would look from different angles. But in the classic male tradition, the pointlessness of this exercise is key to its appeal. The meme has origins in actual neuroscience: After decades of studying how men and women’s brains compare across a wide array of functions, researchers accept that the “most consistent cognitive sex differences have been found in the visuo-spatial domain.” Typically, this has been demonstrated by men’s performance in mental rotation tasks, the most common test being a paper-and-pencil assessment published in 1978 by Steven G. Vandenberg and Allan R. Kuse. They based their work on figures from a 1971 experiment by Roger Shepard and Jacqueline Metzler, who challenged subjects to decide if paired images showed two different objects or the same object as it would rotate in space.
Why men tend to do better than women on such tests — with higher accuracy and shorter response times — is a topic of considerable scientific debate. Though to the average guy learning this fact, it simply means bragging rights, and perhaps the exaggerated claim that they have superior visual-spatial processing overall. The implications are thrilling for men, who stand to reason that they’re hard-wired for optimal athleticism, building, navigation and memory.
Even neuroimaging appears to support this line of thought: a 2012 study on mental rotation produced fMRI scans which suggested “that networks involved in visual attention appear to be more strongly activated” in men than women, and that “men use a more automatic process when analyzing complex visual reasoning tasks.” Our brains are all fired up by the activity.
The act of mental rotation does play a role in how we evaluate and interact with our immediate environment. But for the purposes of an internet joke, it becomes a pleasure in itself. Smugly announcing that you plan to 3D Tetris blocks in your head all day is an ironic reversal of the very male choice to advertise yourself as super-intelligent to an online audience that doesn’t believe you or care either way. (Think of guys bringing up their IQ or SAT scores, dropping $10 words they don’t understand or mansplaining academic concepts to women PhDs in that field.)
It likewise collapses the hyperbole of men convinced that they’re engineered by nature to best women in every aspect of perception, having evolved as an apex hunter. When you strip that macho fantasy back to “sitting in a room and picturing a cone,” you see exactly how silly it is.
What’s funnier still is how fragile the notion of male visual dominance turns out to be. For one thing, it’s not an intrinsic advantage: Boys and girls start on equal footing, and it takes “most of childhood and adolescence for the gender gap in spatial skills to reach the size of the difference seen in adulthood,” according to a recent analysis from psychologists at Emory University. That could mean there are social factors to the familiar imbalance in mental rotation. Meanwhile, researchers have discovered that conducting rotation tests in virtual reality — as opposed to with paper and pencil — eliminated the performance gap. A 2017 experiment using both photographs and three-dimensional models produced similar results, and the authors of a subsequent article contend that “the sex difference found on this test is not due to a male advantage in spatial ability,” but the method of procedure and “artificiality of stimuli.”
Therefore, any man’s boast of the complex geometry unfolding in his gray matter is just that — a dubious expression of pride. Which, of course, is all the more reason to keep riffing on this supposed talent. We may not be the galaxy-brained gods we like to portray ourselves as, but we have always excelled at making a big deal out of very little.
Hey, it sure beats the boring truth.