I always seem to be the guy that people ask for directions. That is to say, me, the spatially challenged, head-to-the-ground expatriate living in Belfast. Usually, I try to wing it so that I don’t come across as completely stupid. But try as I might, my response always ends up sputtering its way into a wan shrug and the trusty fallback, “Sorry, I’m an American. I’m afraid you’ve asked the wrong person.” Given America’s cartoon character status throughout much of Europe, being an apologetically naïve American greases my way out of a lot of awkward social encounters here, so this tactic usually works just fine. (Unless I get a chatty person who’s not in any hurry and I’m their first real live link to the New World. Then I’m in for a lengthy discussion about Obama and Disney World.)
But the truth is I’ve called Northern Ireland home for almost three years now and I should be able to give directions like a local. It’s not like people are asking me how to get to some little-known footpath deep in the Mourne Mountains—they just want to know how to get to the nearest pharmacy or the quickest route to the Student Union at the university where I work. And it’s not just giving directions I struggle with, either. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a knack for getting lost. I’ve wasted more of my life wandering around car parks, hospitals, and campuses than I care to know. Maps? Anathema. I might as well be looking at hieroglyphics on a papyrus role.
What makes my "condition" even more ironic is that, according to family legend, I’m descended from the great Danish navigator Vitus Bering. Well, he wasn’t all that great, since he got shipwrecked on the Commander Islands and lost nearly half his crew before dying of an unknown disease. But I imagine he would have at least needed to know his way around a nautical map to have been commissioned by Peter the Great and hailed as the first European to spy the southern shores of Alaska. So if I come from such Euclidian-headed genetic stock, why is my own brain slow as molasses when it comes to finding my way around town?
According to mounting evidence being gathered by University of East London psychologist Qazi Rahman and his colleagues, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m gay. 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 memory for 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 influences on 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 Neuroscience in 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.)
Now before you go conjuring up exceptions to these general findings, note that they refer to aggregate population-level differences. Although I personally match Rahman’s cross-sex neurocognitive model for gay brains to the tee, my partner, Juan, is a walking GPS device who could have given old Uncle Vitus a run for his money. And Juan, unlike me, has a pronounced 2D:4D ratio. Furthermore, in science, a statistically significant difference between comparison groups may actually translate to negligible differences in the real world. Finally, Rahman is quick to point out that it’s not as though gay men simply have women’s brains, or that gay women have men’s brains. Rather, the brains of homosexuals are more like neurocognitive mosaics of both sexes. For example, lesbians do not appear to differ from heterosexual women on cognitive measures except for verbal fluency, where they score in the male-typical direction.
A final note. In writing this piece I happened upon a tangential empirical tidbit indicative of another physiological difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In addition to our navigational shortcomings, recent evidence suggests that gay people produce different armpit odors than straight people and these scents are detectable in forced choice trials. So perhaps if I stopped wearing deodorant this would deter people from asking me for directions.
In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature.