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1 October 2014
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Sex ID

Spatial ability

It's probably fair to say that we don't spend much time thinking about the way we view the world around us.

Edina and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous read a map
Does the Sex ID angles task relate to map reading ability?

But some scientists conduct detailed studies of how accurately we judge space – our spatial abilities – with paper and pencil tests. The Sex ID test included similar tests – the angles, 3D shapes and spot the difference tasks.

Studies show that, on average, men are better than women at mentally rotating pictures of three dimensional objects (the 3D shapes task) or judging the slope of a line (the angles task).

But scientists note that women outperform men at other tasks. For example, women are more likely to spot which of a group of objects has been moved to a new position (the spot the difference task).

It's not fully known why men and women perform differently on spatial tasks.

Studies have concluded that men tend to pay more attention to the way their surroundings are laid out, which may explain why they generally score better on tasks like 3D shapes and angles. Researchers have also found that, on average, men are better at finding compass orientations and rely on mental images of three dimensional spaces to find their way.

Women were more likely to notice landmarks, which could be linked to their higher scores on the spot the difference task. Research has shown that women are more likely to use memorised routes and landmarks to stay on track.

The Sex ID angle task
The Sex ID angles task tests spatial ability.

Dr Marcia Collaer, a behavioural neuroscientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, says that the link between the angles task and navigation ability is not backed up with empirical evidence, but it is worth considering.

Modern cavemen

Scientists try to come up with logical explanations for these puzzling results.

One theory is that modern humans are still very similar to their prehistoric ancestors. In early times men spent lots of time hunting in unfamiliar territory where landmarks were less useful. Women, on the other hand, spent more time close to home foraging for food and they may have relied more on landmarks to find their way around.

Testosterone and spatial ability

It's also thought that the male sex hormone testosterone plays a role in spatial ability. One finding that supports this theory is that women with above average levels of testosterone in their body perform better at mental rotation tasks than women with average levels of testosterone.

Most scientists think there's no real difference between men and women when it comes to total intelligence (commonly called IQ). It's just possible that our brains have evolved separately to meet the demands of our environment.

Secrets of the Sexes

A BBC One television series Secrets of the Sexes explores brain sex differences. Find out more about the programmes.

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Take the Sex ID test

Find out about the BBC One television series Secrets of the Sexes

Read about the Sex ID experiment

Sex ID frequently asked questions

Other Sex ID articles:

Brain sex
Facial attractiveness
Empathising and systemising

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