December 3rd, 2013

Men’s and women’s brains are different

Well, duh.

It’s the connectivity, stupid:

Researchers found that many of the connections in a typical male brain run between the front and the back of the same side of the brain, whereas in women the connections are more likely to run from side to side between the left and right hemispheres of the brain…

A special brain-scanning technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which can measure the flow of water along a nerve pathway, established the level of connectivity between nearly 100 regions of the brain, creating a neural map of the brain called the “connectome”, Professor Verma said…

Men tend to outperform women involving spatial tasks and motor skills – such as map reading – while women tend to better in memory tests, such as remembering words and faces, and social cognition tests, which try to measure empathy and “emotional intelligence”.

Anyone who doesn’t think men and women are different in the way their brains operate hasn’t been paying attention. And anyone who thinks the differences are entirely due to nurture and not nature also hasn’t been paying attention (or has been paying attention but is in denial for political reasons). I’m pretty sure, however, that articles such as the one I linked to are oversimplifications and overgeneralizations, and that there’s a fair amount of overlap between the sexes in the results. But my intuition tells me :-) that there’s a general truth there.

However, I wonder whether they actually mean “map reading,” or whether they mean “sense of direction.” For example, I’m very good at reading a map. In the pre-GPS days I was the navigator in most of the male-female driving teams of which I was a member, and I did fairly well at that task. It’s when I’m trying to find my way around a place without a map that I fall down. When I ask for directions (which, even though I’m a woman, I really don’t like to do) I prefer to get simple instructions rather than more conceptual ones. Just tell me “go three blocks, turn left, then turn right at the Citgo station” rather than trying to get me to understand whether I’m going north or south or anything like that.

And give me a paper and pencil. I must write it down if it involves anything more than two steps.

23 Responses to “Men’s and women’s brains are different”

  1. T Says:

    “. . . I wonder whether they actually mean ‘map reading,’ or whether they mean ‘sense of direction.’”

    Neo,

    I agree it seems like a poor choice of phrasing. I would clarify that even further by referring back to spatial relationships; i.e., it’s not map reading, but the ability to identify spatial relationships even in a 2-D map which then carries over into the ability to mentally navigate.

    Anecdotally, I am very spatially oriented; my family refers to me as the “family GPS’ and claims that I carry maps in my head. My wife, by contrast, is a musician who is phenomenally aurally oriented. She is a superlative musical colorist, but very poor with spatial relationships. When she drives, she drive by landmarks. Heaven help her if a particular landmark, say a building, is razed; she will (and has, but not always) missed turning where she has turned many times before. I on the other hand can visualize the spatial relationships of surroundings whether reading a map or navigating by “mind map”; I can just as easily navigate without landmarks.

    My wife and I seem to represent this particular male-female stereotype pretty much at opposite ends of the spectrum. My sister-in-law, however, splits the difference. Also a musician, her ear is not quite as refined as my wife’s, but like me, she can navigate effectively using “mind maps.”

    So I offer that while the stereotypes are probably based upon some fundamental norm, there are always (probably many) exceptions to the rule.

    Let me add that I don’t personally see either skill as lacking of normal development. I suspect that it’s just different “wiring.” I play a musical instrument; I can only reproduce notes, my wife, by contrast, makes music and does so remarkably well with a phenomenal sensitivity. As a dancer (spatial relationships?), I suspect that this is a distinction that makes some sense to you and any practicing artist.

  2. Gringo Says:

    Men tend to outperform women involving spatial tasks and motor skills – such as map reading.

    When I was 5 and my sister was 7, we and our mother spent the summer with our grandparents while father was working elsewhere. I never got lost walking the streets of our grandparents’ small town. I was always able to find my way back to my grandparents’ house. Years later my sister told me that by contrast, at 7 years old she would get lost when she tried to walking on her own in our grandparents’ town. It frustrated her that her kid brother wouldn’t get lost but she would.

    Four years later, when I got my first bicycle, I found out the limits of my internal navigation system. I had bicycled some 3-4 miles from home, and suddenly realized I didn’t know where I was. Fighting tears, I kept bicycling forward, and found myself once again on familiar territory, some 6 miles from where I had started and about 2 miles from home.

    Which is the difference between a winding 8 mile bike trip and a walk on a street grid of a square mile.

    In later years I have driven 4000 mile round trips without either a map or a navigation system.

    A further difference between men and women is that women are more likely to ask directions, while men are more likely to brave it out/bluff it out.

    However, I wonder whether they actually mean “map reading,” or whether they mean “sense of direction.”

    I have noticed that when I give directions by the compass, in a city which is laid out on a North-South grid, many have trouble following me. They prefer the left/right nomenclature. The left/right nomenclature of the likes of Google Maps is harder for me to follow, than using compass directions.

    Eastern Massachusetts, which can be confusing to navigate for any stranger, is made more confusing for me by the “1.7 miles on State Street, then turn left on Jones Road for 0.4 Miles,” made even more confusing for me when I am simply following the same State or US Route when I am turning left. Better for me that Google Maps would simply state: “Follow Route 17 as it passes through State Street and Jones Road.” But no navigation system can be all things to all people.

    Granted, the winding roads of Massachusetts are not appropriate for compass directions.

  3. T Says:

    “Eastern Massachusetts, which can be confusing to navigate . . . .”

    Gringo,

    We have a similar problem in Western PA. As part of a maturely eroded plateau, roads tend to follow old stream beds; in other words, there is rarely a straight line between two points. In fact some a road labeled Route XX North might actually travel East or West a good part of the way. It’s just that if you follow the route to its end, you end up Northerly (or Southerly, or Easterly or Westerly) from where it started.

    All in all, places like this (and I assume Eastern CT) are great places to learn to drive and navigate. Do it here, and midwestern towns laid out in a grid are a piece of cake. I always feel sorry for those who have learned directions from a grid and then have to accomodate being here.

  4. roc scssrs Says:

    Just saw the headline for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s report on the same study: No Surprise? Men Using Just Half a Brain. Anything can be turned to ideological purpose!

  5. T Says:

    roc scssrs,

    Given that most of these institutions are run by men, the misandry just amazes me. Quite a bit of self-loathing going on out there!

  6. Gringo Says:

    T:
    All in all, places like this [Western PA, Eastern MA](and I assume Eastern CT) are great places to learn to drive and navigate. Do it here, and midwestern towns laid out in a grid are a piece of cake.

    Agreed that navigating places laid on on grids is a piece of cake after learning to navigate the aforementioned non-grid places. However, there is not much carryover from learning navigating in a non-grid place when you go to another non-grid place. I grew up in a non-grid place, and still found Eastern MA confusing-probably because I was used to a rural non-grid, and Eastern MA is very urban. You just have to learn a new map.

    One confusing thing about coming to a non-grid place from a grid place is that when someone coming from a grid place hears “go straight,” it means to go in the same compass direction. Whereas in a non-grid place, “go straight” means “follow the same road/route” regardless of how many times it changes compass directions.

  7. Ray Says:

    Anyone who has both male and female children knows they behave differently.

    “A further difference between men and women is that women are more likely to ask directions, while men are more likely to brave it out/bluff it out.”
    That’s supposedly why the Isralites wandered 40 years in the wilderness on the way to the promised land. Moses wouldn’t ask for directions.

  8. T Says:

    I was just reminded of a related comment I read quite some time ago (around the time of the Larry Summers Harvard dust-up) which claimed that within the bell curve, men and women tend to be relatively equally competent in math. It was at both extremes of the curve (an abnormal competency/understanding of math and an abnormal incompetency with math) that men overwhelmingly outnumbered women.

  9. T Says:

    Gringo,

    I think that your “go straight’ comment is aptly put. It’s amazing isn’t it that a phrase as simple as “go straight” can have different meanings. It’s no wonder we humans misunderstand each other so often.

  10. Don Says:

    There have been a number of studies about male vs female navigation, going back to the 1990s.

    The gist of it is that women tend to navigate by landmarks, while men tend to use a dead reckoning system. They determined this by having men and women navigate mazes, then altering the maze either by changing landmarks or by changing distance and direction.

    I don’t think the difference is in map reading, I expect men would have some advantage with that, but the main thing is that men are better oriented then women when there are no known landmarks around.

  11. expat Says:

    I’m also the GPS system for my husband, but part of my ability is due to my studying maps so I understand the area we will be driving through. I also pay a lot more attention to things along the way, so I know where the shop or restaurant or landmark is that marks the left turn. If I do miss a turn, I can usually figure out how to get back on course, even if the way is a bit convoluted. BTW, one thing that drove my crazy about the Princeton area this summer was the tendency to have trees and bushes planted to block the signs.
    I hated using MapQuest directions because I didn’t have an overview of where I was going.

  12. Mr. Frank Says:

    Larry Summers was right. The spatial relations difference by sex is well known, and that tends to correlate with math ability.

  13. NeoConScum Says:

    My tiny Sicilian minx can, among other things, see through lead, hear through concrete walls, smell anything “bad” at 1,000-yards, know what EVERYBODY in our condo ‘hood is doing and(often)thinking, knows when I’ve been…well…Bad… This WASP T-Rex doesn’t stand an atom of a chance. Sheeeeesh.

  14. Roy Lofquist Says:

    Go about half a mile past where the old Johnson place used to be and turn left.

  15. waitforit Says:

    What did one social behaviorist scientist fly say to the other social behaviorist scientist fly?

    You know your shit.

  16. waitforit Says:

    Good times!

    In which Hollywood produces a sitcom of bisexuals who dance AND dead reckon.

  17. push.me.one.more.time Says:

    Who will poo on the Who?

    I kinder like Roger Dodger.

    Notter

    the other

    feller.

    Roger, say it ain’t so:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhuT6odwOZM

  18. rickl Says:

    Muddy Waters: Mannish Boy

  19. sdferr Says:

    Pleasing as Peggy Lee is, for my money she can’t compete with Darleen Edwards and her pianistic “escort”, Jonathan.

    heh

  20. Richard Aubrey Says:

    It would be interesting to know what about one talent is a cost reducing the ability in the other talent.
    If there were not a connection, more of one meaning less of the other, there would not be a gender difference.
    Evpsych can take you to a lot of strange places.

  21. david foster Says:

    If you were designing vehicles, you could *probably* create something that can be an airplane, an automobile, a surface-going boat, and a submarine…but it would be a *lot* less efficient than specialized vehicles for each application.

    For brains, the tradeoffs between functions are probably not nearly so sharp…as an analogy, any general-purpose computer can compute anything that can be computed, although some are better than others at certain classes of problems.

    The nature of human reproduction implies that any human community will, over the long term, contain both males and females…hence, it would make sense for evolution (or the Designer) to provide a differing mix of mental strengths for the 2 sexes, since they will normally be in situations where they can support each other. But the difference in mix can’t be *too* absolute, since there are conditions (the men are off to war for a protracted period and the women are on their own) in which the mutual support does not exist.

  22. artfldgr Says:

    Anyone who doesn’t think men and women are different in the way their brains operate hasn’t been paying attention

    that means politicans, academics, ideologues, communists, socilaists, liberals, progressives, and feminists…

    are distracted leaders of our nation

    aftger all. i am forbidden for the rest of my life from havin a raise or promotion… anyone want to hear the tape? this was after i fought to get out of a office smaller than a bathroom stall (literally).. had a stroke there too.. turns out that unprotected classes have no eeoc protection…

    thats cause we are the same, and i must have cheated to do better than women… so i was denied education… my son was now denied his phd… went into the navy taking a commission… not bad ,we need more researxhers and we get more trained what?

    personally i no longer care..
    they exterminated my family
    negatged my future
    stole my ip
    and insured my wife would be barren
    and give me no legal recourse. as i have no rights
    (now that statement by a female judge in court is doubled)

    so pretty much, the wacko ladies destroyed our society using the same disparate impact that the nazis used to exterminate the jews… (if we are equal, and they control more than their proportion, then they must be cheating, social justice demands – ovens in germany, disaffetion and tortyre in the US)

    happy days…

  23. IGotBupkis, "'Faeces Evenio', Mr. Holder?" Says:

    Yes, being male, I do have the typical map and 3d capacity that you “expect”, being inherently sexist you rotten, evil people (ar ar).

    I have verified that I can recall the floor plan with decent detail for every house I’ve ever lived in once I was ambulatory (i.e., nominally 10 months but we lived in that house until I was at least 3, so adjust accordingly). I can usually go to places I’ve been before and re-follow routes I’ve taken, esp. if I was there during the daytime so I have multiple points of connection. Neo would love for me to give her directions, since I can give her exactly the kind she seeks by essentially mentally driving it in my head (“OK, go through three lights, then turn right. Another light, then turn left. Now follow the curves until you see the huge white Widget National Bank building — you can’t miss it — and turn left. Now proceed to the second light, and you’re right back where you started.” :-D)

    I believe all of it ties to nominal gender roles in a pre-civilization culture. Men hunt and fight, which, if you think about it, is all about hand-eye coordination, 3d sense, visual accuity, and other related things. Men who developed these qualities better, who had better genes for them, passed them on to their children and helped their tribes prosper.

    Women raise children and prepare meals, and for that facial recognition, social capabilities, and smell and touch (when your children are sick, they smell different, which means you seek the limited care you have available that much sooner… When the food is “off” and should not be eaten, it smells wrong, so people don’t get sick)… Clearly, with labor, women who had a higher pain tolerance were better off. Women who developed these qualities better, who had better genes for them, passed them on to their children and helped their genes, and their tribes, prosper.

    There’s nothing to say either gender can’t have the qualities of the other, it’s just saying that that opposite gender is “starting from a hole” and less likely to have abilities that truly EXCEL over even the average member of the other gender.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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