Put simply, spatial awareness is the ability to recognise and visualise spatial patterns and manipulate them in your mind. A classic test of spatial awareness is showing people an object and asking them to visualise what it would look like when rotated 180°. Men are generally quicker to perform this mental rotation. This male advantage is true across cultures, in 4-year olds and even babies. And this spatial ability is strongly related to navigation skills.
Women by contrast are better at “object location memory” – the ability to recall the specific location of an individual object.
No one knows exactly why this is, although the arguments come down to two factors – evolution and hormones.
Researchers have explained why men have better spatial skills by looking at the different roles men and women have played during our evolutionary history. In human societies during the Pleistocene, men ranged far and wide while hunting whereas women were responsible for gathering food closer to home.
It was advantageous for men to be good at mentally picturing a landscape from different perspectives so they didn’t get lost. At the same time, it was useful for women to be able to locate particular plants year after year during their growing seasons.
Those arguing that it is a result of hormones, meanwhile, point to there being no evolutionary advantage in NOT being able to navigate. They say
…the superior navigational ability of males is simply a “side effect” of males having more testosterone. They argue that the evolution argument doesn’t stack up because women would have inherited the same navigational skills as men unless it were somehow bad for them. And it’s hard to imagine why good navigational skills would be a bad thing for women.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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