Is Male Hormone Responsible For Males Having a Better Sense of Direction?

We’ve known for a long time that testosterone is responsible for some pretty important areas of performance: muscle mass and strength, libido, energy and stamina are all attributes directly linked to levels of the male hormone.

We also know that these levels can fluctuate and if we want to enjoy peak physical condition it’s important to keep them on the up and up. Research now shows that if we keep our testosterone going in the right direction, it might just might repay the favour.

A team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) recently attempted to establish whether a raised levels of testosterone hold the key to a finely tuned sense of direction.

Investigators administered testosterone to 42 men and women then monitored their neural activity as they attempted to find their way through a maze. And the results? Inconclusive. Though in general the men out performed the women in the given task and a change to brain activity was observed, there was ultimately not enough clear cut data to link strong spatial awareness to higher testosterone.

“Studies have consistently shown that males perform better than females on several spatial tasks,” the researchers reported. Although the testosterone group performed slightly better, “the navigation success and the navigation strategy were similar” in those administered with a placebo. Complex behaviours such as navigation, relying more on learned strategies, were not altered despite increased neuronal activity in relevant brain regions.”

Despite the underwhelming results in this particular study, the team remain convinced that it is a neurological bias which leads to men consistently out performing women in these kind of challenges, as they did again here. 18 men and 18 women were neurologically monitored as they familiarised themselves with a virtual maze. They had an hour to learn the layout before they were hooked up to an fMRI scanner and presented with 45 navigation tasks, each 30 seconds long. The men managed to complete 50% more of the tasks than women.

The reason for this is thought to be mainly evolutionary, as Carl Pintzka, lead author of the study, and a PhD candidate in the NTNU’s Neuroscience department explains,

“In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers. Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently. For instance, other researchers have documented that women are better at finding objects locally than men. In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house.”

The fMRI scan results found the males of the group had greater activity in the hippocampus during the tasks, whereas the female participants depended more on their frontal lobes.

“That’s in sync with the fact that the hippocampus is necessary to make cardinal directions,” said Pintzka. “We hoped that they [women administered with testosterone] would be able to solve more tasks, but they didn’t.”

However there was some evidence that testosterone has some influence on your sense of direction, even if (appropriately enough for a maze based study) it wasn’t quite as straightforward as NTNU researchers would’ve liked. Continues Pintzka, “They [women given testosterone] had improved knowledge of the layout of the maze. And they used the hippocampus to a greater extent, which tends to be used more by men for navigating.”

So testosterone might not be the obvious in-built sat-nav some hoped, but at least a naturally high volume of it can guarantee you a great performance in the gym. You just have to find your way there first.

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