Gay men read maps like women
* 18:32 25 February 2005
* NewScientist.com news service
* Shaoni Bhattacharya
Gay men employ the same strategies for navigating as women - using landmarks
to find their way around - a new study suggests.
But they also use the strategies typically used by straight men, such as
using compass directions and distances. In contrast, gay women read maps
just like straight women, reveals the study of 80 heterosexual and
homosexual men and women.
"Gay men adopt male and female strategies. Therefore their brains are a
sexual mosaic," explains Qazi Rahman, a psychobiologist who led the study at
the University of East London, UK. "It's not simply that lesbians have men's
brains and gay men have women's brains."
The stereotype that women are relatively poor map readers is borne out by a
reasonable bulk of scientific literature, notes Rahman. "Men, particularly,
excel at spatial navigation."
The new study might help researchers understand how cognitive differences
and sexual orientation develop in the womb, he says. Left at the church
Previous tests challenging men and women to make their way through
virtual-reality mazes, or real-life scenarios, have shown that men tend to
be speedier and use different strategies to women.
But Rahman points out this does not mean that all women are bad map readers,
or that it is the mental strategy employed that makes the difference.
Women tend to navigate using landmarks. For example: "Turn left at the
church and carry on past the corner shop." Rahman told New Scientist that
"men rely more on the points of the compass; they have a better sense of
north, south, east and west". They are also more likely to describe
distances. "Cross-sex shifts"
Rahman and his colleagues designed the study to test a theory that gay men
and lesbian women might show "cross-sex shifts" in some cognitive abilities
as well as in their sexual preferences.
The hypothesis is that homosexual people shift in the direction of the
opposite sex in other aspects of their psychology other than sexual
preference. That is, gay men may take on aspects of female psychology, and
lesbians acquire aspects of male psychology.
Gay men did indeed show a "robust cross-sex shift" in the study, says
Rahman. Volunteers were asked to look at a pictorial map and memorise four
different routes for about a minute. They then had to recall the information
as though they were giving a friend directions from one place to another.
"As we expected, straight men used more compass directions than gay men or
women, and used distances as well. Women recalled significantly more
landmarks," says Rahman. But gay men recalled more landmarks than straight
men, as well as using typically male orientation strategies. Verbal fluency
The difference between gay men and lesbian women might hint at differences
in development, says Rahman. Previous work has shown that lesbians show
little difference in their cognitive skills compared with straight women.
The only measure on which they appear to shift is on language production or
verbal fluency, he adds. Like straight men, lesbians tend to be more sparing
with words than straight women. Gay men, however, are inclined to speak as
much as straight women.
"It might be that whatever causes sexual orientation and cognitive
differences are uncoupled in lesbian development, while in gay men the two
things could be tightly coupled," Rahman suggests.
Journal reference: Behavioral Neuroscience (vol 119, p 311)