The trope of a guy who refuses to ask for directions is old enough to induce an immediate eye roll, but as it turns out, it may not veer too far from the truth. A survey of 3,000 drivers found that 83 percent of men admitted to overriding their GPS, compared to 75 percent of women, and there’s evidence that this hubris isn’t entirely unfounded.
To date, multiple studies have demonstrated that men score higher on cognitive tasks related to navigation and “mental rotation” than women. To get a better handle on these differences, researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology instructed a group of 18 men and 18 women to find their way out of a virtual maze. While doing so, participants were given 45 different navigation tasks, such as “find the yellow car” from different starting points, and wore fMRI scanners to track any differences in brain activity.
Their results showed that men solved 50 percent more of the navigation tests. “Men’s sense of direction was more effective. They quite simply got to their destination faster,” Carl Pintzka, co-author of the study and PhD candidate at NTNU’s Department of Neuroscience, said in a press release. He noted that men tended to rely on cardinal directions, which turned out to be a more flexible and efficient strategy, whereas “women usually orient themselves along a route to get there.” Brain imaging data also indicated that men use their hippocampus more when navigating, but women tended to use the frontal areas of the brain instead. “That’s in sync with the fact that the hippocampus is necessary to make use of cardinal directions,” Pintzka explained.
For the second part of the experiment, researchers recruited 42 additional women and divided them into two groups: 21 of whom received a drop of a placebo, while the other 21 received a drop of testosterone. Then they were instructed to find their way out of the same virtual maze and respond to the same tasks. Although the women who had the drop of testosterone had an improved sense of direction in the maze — and used their hippocampus more — it didn’t make a measurable difference in their ability to solve more navigation tasks.
From this, Pintzka and his team concluded that the gender difference likely has evolutionary roots, and “therefore, our brains probably evolved differently. For instance, other researchers have documented that women are better at finding objects locally than men,” Pintzka said.
Ultimately, though, the implications of the study have more to do with future Alzheimer’s research, which impairs a person’s sense of direction, than a dated comedic premise. “Since we know that twice as many women as men are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, there might be something related to sex hormones that is harmful,” Pintzka explained.
So the next time you find yourself refusing to ask for directions, know that instinct may be ingrained in your neurobiology. But if you wind up in the wrong state in the process, that’s entirely on you.