Women's spatial ability 'increases during period'
By Ernest Gill, 17 October 2005
By Ernest Gill
17 October 2005
HAMBURG - Down through history women have been the butt of smirking male jokes about their alleged inability to give directions or to read road maps.
Now, at last, researchers at the Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, have discovered that a woman's spatial ability, and hence her ability to read maps, actually increases during her menstrual period.
During most of her monthly cycle, higher levels of the female hormone oestrogen are present and these were linked to lower scores on such things as direction finding and map reading.
But when levels of the male hormone testosterone were higher, as during their period, women did better.
The interesting evolutionary question is: why was it necessary for women to be better spatially orientated during their periods?
If women tended to do more gathering and men more hunting, women should be expected to be better at locating, identifying, and remembering biological kinds.
And there is some evidence that this is the case: women perform better at tasks of recalling objects.
The proper domain would of course be plants, but the actual domain appears to include the stationary environment in general, so that this skill may be seen as a spatial ability.
The botanical classification systems of primitive tribes bear witness to an impressive memory capacity that may be domain-specific.
The monthly cycle of hormones could conceivably have been linked to cycles of the moon, knowledge of which was vital to early hunters and gatherers.
The research could partly explain the age-old stories about witches collecting herbs during the cycle of the full moon when their "magical" powers of detection were at their peak.
Another advantage that women have is the uncanny ability (from a man's point of view) to read another person's face, and here too the Bochum University researchers have come up with some startling findings. Their research suggests that the brain may be functionally specialized for individual emotions.
"People with Huntington's have trouble interpreting the emotions of others, mistaking fear for anger, sadness for surprise, or any of these for nothing at all."
Neuropsychologist Reiner Sprengelmeyer of Ruhr University in Bochum recently investigated this aspect of the disease by asking patients to identify the changing emotions expressed by a face on a computer screen.
He found that Huntington's patients have problems recognizing all emotions except happiness, but experience the greatest difficulty of all in identifying disgust.
Ten out of 13 Huntington's patients were almost completely unable to recognize it. Sprengelmeyer believes that disgust is an emotion that arose early in our evolutionary history, perhaps as a non-verbal warning of spoiled food.
And as it arose, a specific part of the brain became dedicated to its recognition. This structure, he thinks, may reside in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain involved in cognition and movement that is always destroyed by Huntingdon's.
"There is a long-standing hypothesis that all emotions are processed by the same brain structure," says Sprengelmeyer. "Our finding suggests that there are several structures that are important for decoding different emotions."
So the Bochum researchers have dispelled myths about women's abilities to read faces and read road maps.
One unanswered question remains: Why is it men never admit they've misread a road map and refuse to stop and ask somebody for directions?
Subject: German news