Gay and Going the Wrong Way

42-17675184Scientific American has an article online entitled, “Never Ask a Gay Man for Directions”  about some interesting correlations found between sexual orientation, gender, and navigational strategy (i.e. using landmarks vs Euclidean orientation strategies; “take a right at the museum” vs “go 5 miles East and then turn right”).  

This research, primarily being done at the University of East London by psychologist Qazi Rahman and his colleagues, is part of a growing body of literature suggesting that particular traits, like spatial intelligence, are linked to varying hormonal effects during prenatal growth.

From the article:

Mind you, it’s not that I’m poor at directions because I’m gay, but rather Rahman has discovered a nontrivial neural correlation between these two psychological traits. This correlation is similar in nature to the finding that left-handed individuals demonstrate better memoryfor events than right-handers due to their generally larger corpus callosums, a neurological boon that facilitates episodic recall.  Southpaws aren’t better at recalling memories because they’re left-handed, but because of the common physical (brain) denominator underlying the expression of both traits.

Due to atypical hormonal influenceson the developing fetus during prenatal growth, including the amount of circulating androgens (e.g. testosterone) present in the mother’s womb, homosexuals (both men and women) often display several telltale “bio-demographic” markers—residual bodily characteristics that indicate the prenatal effect of these hormonal factors. For example, you may already know about the well-publicized “2D:4D effect,” scientific shorthand for the peculiar finding that, for both straight women and gay men, the length ratio between the second and fourth digits (fingers) is, on average, greater than it is for gay women and straight men. Since the brain is just another physical template, there are also differences between straights and gays in brain structure (notably in the hippocampus) and therefore cognitive abilities. For example, gay men and straight women tend to outperform gay women and straight men on most verbal measures, whereas straight men outperform the other groups on measures of spatial intelligence.

In a study reported in Behavioral Neurosciencein 2005, Rahman and his colleagues found that gay men are like women in that they are more dependent on left-right landmark strategies for navigation (e.g., “turn right at the church”) than on Euclidian orientation strategies preferred by straight men (e.g., “the bar is 5 miles in an easterly direction”). And in a follow-up study published in 2008 in the journal Hippocampus, Rahman and his coauthor, psychologist Johanna Koerting, also from the University of East London, found that heterosexual males are unique from gay men, straight women, and gay women in that they perform significantly faster on a task requiring them to scout out novel terrain in order to find a hidden search target. (Note that the researchers only tested people who regarded themselves as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. Bisexuals were excluded.)

Link to full article.

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