I have to tell you about this.
Recently I blogged about my utter lack of a sense of direction and my tendency to get lost even in my own neighborhood. I mentioned studies showing most women navigate well only by using landmarks and context, while men use compass points and mental maps. Whether this is a learned, psychological difference between the sexes or an inborn difference couldn’t be determined by those behavioral studies. Some scientists, of course, have been happy to blame it all on hormones.
Since writing that blog, I have done a little detective work and uncovered information – okay, so I read it in the Washington Post last week – about neurological differences between men and women that affect their ability to find their way around.
It’s not our hormones. It’s our ears.
Luc Tremblay, researcher and assistant professor of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, explains it this way: The inner ear contains three semicircular canals that help track the body’s motion, speed, and direction. Those canals tend to be larger in men’s ears than in women’s, so men get stronger internal cues telling them where on earth they are. Women’s dainty little inner ear canals aren’t quite up to the job, so we depend more on external cues such as that church we just passed and the pet store up ahead.
Tremblay thinks women can correct errors more quickly than men, because they’re constantly cross-checking external information with internal cues. I’ll confess I don’t know what he’s talking about. When I’m lost, the only cross-checking I do is when I pull into a gas station and blurt, “Can you tell me where the heck I am?” If I’m getting internal cues from my ears or anywhere else, I am deaf to them.
Now that imaging devices are so plentiful, a lot of research can be done on the brain without cracking open the skull and taking a look, and some of that research deals with navigational skill. In 2005, Norwegian scientists discovered the brain’s grid cells, which help us create mental maps of the world around us. We face north and a certain cluster of neurons fires in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. Face south, east or west and different clusters fire. In June last year, according to the Post article, scientists at Washington University discovered we also have neurons – charmingly named the Purkinje cells – that interact with the inner ear canal “to help us adjust our positioning for gravity.”
Our bodies usually take care of all this without our conscious awareness, but the process doesn’t always work. Put a human in total darkness and he quickly becomes disoriented. Put a pilot in a heavy fog bank with zero visibility and he may end up crashing the plane. The firing of the correct neurons seems to depend on what the person believes. If he’s looking north but is sure he’s looking south, the neurons for south will fire. This may explain why some men can drive quite a distance in the wrong direction, convinced they’re going the right way, before they see their mistake.
The experts on such matters assure us that men and women, through conscious self-training, can develop the best navigational skills of the opposite sex, to add to their own. Women can teach ourselves to determine direction by watching the position of the sun in the daytime and the North Star at night. Men can learn to make note of landmarks. And we can all keep an eye out for the nearest service station so we can pull in and ask for directions.
Compass photo by Scott Rothstein