Are you the kind of person who gets lost in a parking lot—or can you easily navigate through a dense forest? Does wandering a new city fill you with dread that you’ll never find your way back to your hotel, or do you inherently know how to navigate unfamiliar surroundings?
Why do some people have a poor sense of direction, and why does it appear to occur more often in women than men? We discussed this topic with Mary Hegarty, PhD, Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also runs the Hegarty Spatial Thinking Lab.
How are the navigation strategies of women different from those of men?
In studies that rely on surveys on how men and women navigate, what’s come out is that women are more likely to say they use familiar routes, and that they pay attention to local landmarks, like “I turn right at the church,” while men are more likely to say they just know where things are, or that they pay attention to north, south, east or west.
In a recent study that we did in our lab, we had the subjects go on a route in a virtual environment many times so they learned the route really well. And we pointed out landmarks along the way. Then we put them in one place in this virtual environment and asked them to navigate to another place. One option for them was to take the route that they knew, and the other option was to take a shortcut. We found that men were more likely to take shortcuts, and women were more likely to follow the route that they learned. But, it’s not like all the men used shortcuts and all the women used well-learned routes.
What might explain these results?
This is fairly new research. So more follow-up needs to be done to flesh this all out. Maybe the men are just more facile at using the controls. (This is a virtual environment that you are navigating using an Xbox controls.)
We don’t know how much of one’s directional sense is due to differences in the ability to form what we call a cognitive map, a sense of where things are in space. It’s possible that women are less able to do this, so they stick with the well-learned route as opposed to the men. We did a follow-up study—it’s not published yet—where we told people to take the shortcut and we found the differences between women and men got much smaller. But, in general, we know that when you bring people on the same route over and over again, there are some people that will never learn the route, while other people learn it really quickly. So, there are big individual differences, regardless of gender.
We did a larger study where people had to walk through an actual building (as opposed to a virtual space like the other study mentioned), and we saw a gender difference in navigating the building. When we led people through the building on a route and then brought them back to a particular place and asked them to point where another place was in the building, the men did better. So, it seems that the men had a better spatial representation of the environment compared with the women.
Is one strategy more effective than the other?
Finding and taking a shortcut is more efficient. But just knowing where something is in the environment doesn’t necessarily mean you know a route to get there. The thing about using a well-learned route is that you know you can get there for sure, while with a shortcut there is always a little bit of a risk; for example, you could be walking through a dangerous area. And, in evolutionary history, that would have been more of an issue for women than men, with evolution possibly selecting for more cautious navigation in women (so that that they were more likely to survive and bear children). What I’m interested in is whether men and women differ in their threshold as to how sure they need to be. Are men more likely to take that risk?
Why do we often think that women are more likely to get lost compared with men?
We find big variations within the two genders but, on average, men are better at navigation. If all you do is learn the routes that you take regularly but then have to use an alternative route, you would be more likely to get lost. But, if you’re someone who has a sense of where things are and you end up in a novel place, you can still figure out a route to where you want to go. That may be why some people end up being lost a lot and others don’t because they have a better understanding of their environment and how to get to different places on different routes. That is why we believe that women tend to get lost more.
Also, women may simply be more willing to tell you that they have a bad sense of direction, since there doesn’t seem to be a stigma about this. In contrast, there is at least a stereotype that men have a better sense of direction than women, and as a result, men might be less likely to admit if they have poor navigational ability. We have found in our studies that when asked to rate their sense of direction, women on average rate themselves lower than men do.
What might explain this gender difference in navigational skills?
There is an evolutionary theory that because men were the “hunters,” they had to travel further from home to follow the game, maybe taking different routes each time, and then they had to find their way back home. There may have been evolutionary selection for that ability to navigate. Women, the original “gatherers,” tend to be better at what is called static spatial memory. For example, if you show people an array of objects, take it away and move some of these objects, and then show it to them again, women are better able to figure out which object had been moved compared to men. And the argument is that, if you are gathering food that’s growing, what you need to know is where are the herbs and where are the vegetables.
It could also be that men and women have different life experiences. Again, because of the safety issue, maybe parents allow their male children to roam freely and explore their environment while the girls are closer to home and don’t have that experience in their environment. Then there are cultural stereotypes that women are not as good with navigation, which might cause them to be less confident in their direction-finding abilities and thus inhibit them from exploring their environment more and taking risks. It could be a combination of all these factors. But women do tend to report more anxiety in finding their way in the environment and getting lost.
Could sex hormones account for any differences?
That’s interesting, and we’re just starting projects on that at UC Santa Barbara. I have a colleague, Emily Jacobs, who is an expert on hormones and cognition in the department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. We’re collaborating with Elizabeth Chrastil in the Department of Geography on a new project where we will look at postmenopausal women who are not taking hormone replacement therapy. The question we’re really interested in is whether a woman’s sense of direction changes over the course of her reproductive life cycle. We’re also interested in younger women to see if there are differences in navigation ability over the menstrual cycle.
What part of the brain is involved with navigation?
The hippocampus is involved in spatial memory, which refers to remembering information about your environment and your orientation in the environment. Interestingly, studies have found that London taxi drivers, who must pass an infamously difficult cabbie test without the use of GPS or maps to get their license, tend to have a large hippocampus. This was true even when they were compared with London bus drivers who were the same age, had been on the job for the same amount of time, and who did as much driving but follow the same routes all the time, while taxi drivers have to find the most efficient way. This suggests that hippocampal volume increases with experience as a taxi driver.
We call it a “sense of direction,” but is it only sight that’s important or are other senses involved as well?
Vision is the primary sense by which we see landmarks and update our position as we move through the environment. But also important in navigation are “body-based senses”—a term often used to refer, collectively, to the vestibular system, proprioception, and motor efferent sensing, which together allow us to sense self-movement in an environment, independent of visual cues.
We did a study in which people learned about an environment either by walking through it or by navigating in a computerized virtual environment where they didn’t actually physically move through the space. These virtual environment studies may be limited because sensing your movement through space may be important for getting the scale of the environment and for how far away things are; it’s a way to sense distances. People automatically update their position in space. If you have people in a room and you turn them around, they automatically know where everything is.
The role of audition (hearing) in navigation hasn’t been studied very much. But blind people can navigate using other senses, not just the body-based senses but also audition and even smell. We know in animal navigation that smell is very important. A sense of direction is not one sense
Does relying on GPS make for worse navigational skills?
Since GPS navigation is relatively new, we don’t have definitive data yet about this yet, but relying on GPS means you are not exploring your environment, so I think it can be an issue. You may end up paying more attention to the GPS than to your environment, so you may not notice landmarks that you see along the way. We have some new data that have not been published yet where we found that women say they are more likely to rely on GPS while men are more likely to explore their environment, taking different routes. It may be because of the cultural stereotype, lack of confidence, or a difference in navigational ability.
My husband and I spent three months in Canberra, Australia, on sabbatical. And we used the GPS because we had it. But one day we couldn’t get cellphone service and we got completely lost trying to find a particular store. I feel like if I didn’t have the GPS, I would have had a much better sense of direction. By the end of the three months I did, but I think I would have gotten it much earlier if I didn’t have the GPS.
What tips can you give that can help improve someone’s ability to navigate?
- Don’t assume that you can’t improve. There’s evidence that people can improve many types of spatial skills.
- Make more of a point to paying attention to your environment more. And if you have time, don’t always take the same route. Taking different ones can help you gradually learn the layout of the environment.
- If you have trouble navigating the route in the opposite direction, try to look around and see what the route looks like from the other direction.
- Try not to rely on your GPS. Or, if you are using your GPS, try to relate what you are seeing on your screen to the actual environment. In a sense, you’re using a map. But, if it showed that a church is on the right, pay attention to what it looks like, so that if you were in the situation again you would recognize it.
- Also pay attention not just to local landmarks but also to global landmarks to help you figure out what direction you are facing. I moved to Santa Barbara where there is a mountain range that’s north of the city—and I was living here for a while before I realized that. I don’t normally think in terms of north, south, east, and west. But this global landmark tells me where north is, and at least I can figure it out now. You need local landmarks to tell you where you are, as well as global landmarks to know where you are oriented.
This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the editorial board at BerkeleyWellness.com.