How, you may be asking yourself, is a good sense of direction like a bad case of acne?
Over many decades, psychologists have measured the minds of men and women, looking for similarities and differences. Reliable results are notoriously hard to come by, because it can be very easy to find differences where none really exist. If you decided in 1970 to look at the fraction of scientific and medical Ph.D. awarded to women–under 5 percent–you might conclude that women’s brains just weren’t suited to the task. Today, that figure has reached about 50 percent. Women’s brains haven’t evolved over the past 40 years. Their social environment has.
Yet a few differences between the sexes do seem to hold up to scrutiny. One is spatial abilities. If men look at an object, for example, they are slightly faster at guessing what it would look like if it were rotated 180 degrees. There are plenty of women who do better than individual men. But overall there’s a statistically significant difference in their average performance. This kind of difference carries over from one culture to another. It’s even detectable in babies.
What accounts for the difference? Some scientists argue that it is an adaptation. Obviously, the evolution of the human race hasn’t hinged on being able to turn a stack of blocks around in our heads. But spatial abilities can have some far more practical benefits. If you can picture a landscape clearly in your head, you are less likely to get lost in it. People who score high on spatial ability tests also tend to do well on navigation tests. And in some studies (but by no means all), men do better at finding their way through a new place–be it a university building or a forest.
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