compassIt’s a common stereotype that women have a bad sense of direction.

In my case, it’s totally true. My husband, Douglas, can attest that my sense of direction is barely there. I regularly get turned around when shopping in a mall and driving around town while running errands and have even been known to lose my way two blocks from home. (Not proud of it, but yeah, that really happened.) I remember when I was living in Manhattan, I carried a small compass around with me so that whenever I emerged from a subway station I could orient myself immediately instead of walking several long city blocks before realizing I was headed in the wrong direction–usually while running really late in a freezing snowstorm.

Meanwhile, I marvel at how easily Douglas glides through crazy labyrinths of halls, department store racks, busy streets and crowded airports. It’s like he has an internal satellite navigation system I’m totally lacking.

Now, I know it’s not usually smart to make sweeping generalizations about certain groups of people, for instance, to say that women have a bad sense of direction. However, in this case, a new study from Norwegian University of Science and Technology confirms that when compared to men, like me, many women really do have a poorer ability to orient themselves. And the reason comes down to testosterone.

How did they find this out?

First, while working on a large virtual maze, the researchers noted that the male study participants took more shortcuts and used cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) more often than the female participants, which got them to their destinations faster.

By contrast, the women tended to rely on landmarks to find their way. In real life, this would be like knowing you have to go past the post office and make a right at the bakery to get to where you want to be rather than knowing your destination is north and east of where you are. Unfortunately, this technique slows you down when you’re forced to change your route, say, when there’s road construction and you have to take a detour.

In a second part of this study, the researchers gave a separate group of women a drop of testosterone under their tongue–and suddenly some of the women were able to navigate the virtual maze more accurately and were more likely to use the four cardinal directions the way the men did. On top of that, using MRI brain scans, the researchers discovered that the women were now using more of a certain area of the brain–the hippocampus–that men use more to figure out directions.

So, it appears that testosterone prompts changes that make a female brain solve navigational tasks more like a male brain does.

This isn’t the first research to suggest this. A 2000 study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that during your period you’re better at performing spatial tasks–the kind needed to navigate mazes and figure out directions. And the study authors believe it’s because low estrogen on these days allows your body’s testosterone to shine through, which prompts brain changes that sharpen this skill.

Now for the disclaimers: After having written all this, I don’t mean to suggest that a man’s brain is in any way superior to a woman’s. There are plenty of studies that show how, in general, the female brain is better at certain tasks than the male brain, such as verbal skills and multitasking.

Also, I’m quite sure there are many women for whom navigating is a breeze. As I said, I’m not blessed with that particular skill. But, I have to assume many female pilots, ship captains and Uber drivers are.

So, what do I want you to walk away with from this research? 

If you tend to get turned around a lot as you travel, you can accept that it’s just part of your natural wiring, then do whatever you can to overcome it like I did when carrying a compass through New York City.

And, if you want a better sense of direction, you can wait for your period to come around to get your natural monthly boost in this skill due to testosterone. Or, you can simply practice navigating more in your daily life, say, by changing your route regularly and playing video games that require this ability, such as Tetris and Ms. Pacman. A 2009 study from the University of Toronto proves that women can match a man’s navigational abilities simply by just practicing them more!

[Photo: Eric E Castro]