By Emily Lyons
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
When strangers ask her for directions, Karen Kostyal responds quickly. She has lived around Washington about 30 years and has a well-rooted sense of the area. Nonetheless, the Alexandria resident says, "my husband usually cuts in," supporting the stereotype that men feel their sense of orientation and direction is superior.
"No question," says Buzz Smith, Kostyal's husband. "It's not that I don't get lost. [But] I can give directions . . . better than my wife can."
That assertion may be contestable, but there are well-documented differences in how men and women get from Point A to Point B -- perhaps giving a scientific root to timeworn jokes about women being batty drivers and men never admitting (though committing) error. Studies over the past decade have shown that women are likelier to rely on landmarks and visual cues, and men on maps, cardinal directions (such as north and south) and gauges of distance.
"Women are more dependent on a surrounding frame," says Luc Tremblay, an assistant professor of physical education and health at the University of Toronto, who has led studies on the matter. If landmarks change, women are more apt to notice and question their sense of orientation. "Men are capable of relying on another source of information alone," Tremblay says.
While some scientists theorize that hormones account for navigational differences between the sexes, Tremblay thinks the answer may lie in the inner ear. There, a group of three semicircular canals -- which are usually larger in men than in women -- help track the body's motion, speed and direction. Men, in other words, get stronger internal directional cues, Tremblay speculates.
That doesn't mean women are adrift with no internal compass. Deferring more to external information -- whether the Potomac is on the left or right, whether you've yet passed the zoo -- can hinder path-finding in unfamiliar surroundings or if, say, you approach a spot from a new angle. But women may be quicker to correct errors, says Tremblay, because they continuously cross-check inner-ear cues against external signals such as road signs and odometer readings.
Understanding of the neurological processes men and women use to navigate is growing. The brain, it turns out, has its own sophisticated compass: When we face what we think is north, one group of neurons fires in the hippocampus, the brain's memory center, says Jeffrey Taube, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College; another group fires when we face what our brain tells us is south or east or west. In 2005 Norwegian scientists discovered grid cells, which are responsible for creating mental maps of our surroundings.
In June, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis identified yet another set of neurons -- known as Purkinje cells -- that interact with the inner-ear canal to help adjust our positioning for gravity.
While the body's navigational systems are generally reliable, there are times when "your senses are lying to you," Tremblay says. This may happen when you move vertically, as on an escalator or in a plane on takeoff, or when visibility is poor at night or in a storm. (Consider the 1999 death of John F. Kennedy Jr., whose single-engine plane crashed off Martha's Vineyard on a moonless night in a thick haze, killing him, his wife and his sister-in-law; aviation experts speculated he may have become disoriented.) If you think you're facing north but are actually driving south, the wrong neurons are firing, and you may hurtle toward Virginia thinking it's Maryland until the road signs convince you you're mistaken.
Experts are uncertain whether navigational strategies are more instinctive or learned, but there are ways for men to become more aware of landmarks and for women to identify which way is north and south. Kostyal, a longtime writer and editor with National Geographic, has reasoned through many navigational tangles in unfamiliar cities. Driving west into the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans at night, for example, she and her companions left the snarled interstate and navigated a side route to their hotel by being mindful of cardinal directions.
"Can [ability] be built on through practice? I would say so," says Tremblay.
Taube recalls a study in which women and men were given a tour of a college campus and then later asked to point toward a building they'd passed. Men vastly outperformed women. But when subjects were told at the beginning of the tour to keep the building's location in mind, men and women performed at about the same level. The difference, says Taube, is simply "focus."
An idea of where the compass coordinates lie helps, if you should ever find yourself without GPS or MapQuest. Both Kostyal and Smith say they use the sun for reference -- a hiker's trick. It rises in the east, sets in the west. This may not help you find the most elegant route, but it can help you envision your location on a map. At night, look for the North Star. If you've forgotten, it's the clear bright star that aligns with the end of the Big Dipper that lies, naturally, toward the north. ¿
Emily Lyons is a Washington area freelance writer. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org.