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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.
The results are "very intriguing" and provide "further insight into the origins of route-learning strategies, and the organisation of cognitive abilities in general" says Jean Choi at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, who researches spatial behaviour in humans.
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.
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.
"The results support the notion that males' and females' cognitive abilities may be organised in different ways, and highlight the importance of accounting for sex-specific patterns of behaviour," Choi told New Scientist.
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)