Male vs female navigational abilities. Why do some women find car parking difficult?

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So why do some women find it so difficult to park the car?  The answer lies in the brain.  When in the womb if the baby is exposed to testosterone, according to the commentary by Elizabeth Hampson, the growth of the left hemisphere of the brain is slowed, but the same zones on the right hemisphere grow in compensation, and it is these areas that are responsible for visual-spatial ability, music and mathematics.1  When men get into their car, the car becomes an extension of their body.  To park their car is an automatic process.  Most women have work it out and this is why they can get into a muddle when trying to manoeuvre their car in a tight space. If the female was exposed to testosterone in the womb, she will have better spatial abilities.  How to tell:  if the right fourth finger, the ring finger, is longer than the index finger, this indicates testosterone exposure in the womb.

Approximately half of women cannot tell their left from their right.  According to Dr Ann Moir, neuropsychologist and founder of Brainsex matters, this is because women use both sides of their brain to orientate themselves in space, making it harder to tell left from right.  This explains map reading grief nicely – if she is map reading she may say, ‘Turn left at the next junction.  No, turn right.  Oh, hang on,’  she turns the map upside down, looks at her ring finger – and he gets exasperated.  If he is doing the map reading and this scenario sounds familiar, then it may be wiser for him to wave the right hand if he wants her to turn right.  Being navigated by my Grandmother was always quite an experience.   She would suddenly announce, ‘Turn right here, dear’ whilst waving her left hand at the junction we were actually driving past. I gained much experience in turning the car around as a result.

The turning of the map upside down is explained by the same brain differences – a man looking at an architectural plan can visualise the building in 3-D.  This again is down to their visual-spatial ability.  Most female brains quite simply lack this ability. Instead, she has superior verbal abilities.

When it comes to navigating, it has been found that men and women navigate using quite different parts of the brain.  He uses the hippocampus whereas she uses the prefrontal cortex.  The hippocampus is hardwired for navigation whereas the prefrontal cortex is the thinking part of the brain. When men navigate, they use a sense of the compass points.  Women tend to navigate by landmarks.  A Canadian study, led by Deborah Saucier, had two groups finding unknown locations in the college campus, one set of instructions using compass points, and the other landmarks.  The women using the compass directions made many mistakes, got lost and took longer to find the location than the men.  The same result happened to the men when they were trying to navigate using landmarks.2.

In another study led by Georg Grön, male and female volunteers took part in a video maze, wearing goggles to make it virtual reality as they found their way out of the maze in an MRI scanner.  Again it was found that the men used the hippocampus and the women the prefrontal cortex, and the men got out of the maze quicker.3 It is postulated that some men have something like iron filings in the brain which give them a strong sense of where north is; you could take these men to the desert, blindfold them, spin them round 3 times, and they would still know where north is.

So for those who any of the above sounds familiar, it is a matter of accepting the wiring of our brain and trying not to get too frustrated when typical difficulties are encountered.

  1. Hampson E, Moffat SD.  Is Testosterone related to spatial cognition and hand preference in Humans?  Brain and cognition 26, 255-256. 1994 []
  2. Saucier DM; Green SM et al.  Are sex differences in navigation caused by sexually dimorphic strategies or by differences in the ability to use the strategies?  Behavioural Neuroscience, Vol 116(3). June 2002 403-410 Abstract []
  3. Grön G, Wunderlich AP et al.  Brain activation during human navigation: gender-different neural networks as substrate of performance.  Nature Neuroscience 3, 404-408 (2000). Abstr []

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