Tag Archives: maps

Sex Differences and Mental Rotation

Can you tell which shape is the same as the one underlined?

Can you tell which shape is the same as the one underlined?

Spacial skills, specifically mental rotation, is a field of research that is full of questions pertaining to gender. Are men better at this than women? Are they the same? I found this Australian article by chance after googling “mental rotation.” It claims that women, specifically heterosexual women, are the worst at reading and deciphering maps. The hierarchy goes as follows from “best” to “worst”: heterosexual males, bisexual males, homosexual males, homosexual women, bisexual women, and finally, heterosexual women.

The way this article is phrased, it says that men and women’s ability to do mental rotation tasks is fundamentally different.  Unfortunately, this site did not have the study in question cited anywhere so I couldn’t find it to read it over myself, but it sounds pretty biased to me. Just saying. Anyways, there has been previous research that I have found to support that men, in general, are slightly better at spatial tasks than women, in general. However, research shows that this is probably not something that is inherently fixed in one’s sex or gender. One article says it has a lot to do with the gendered ways that we grow up. For example: boys are typically given trucks and Legos, which are geometrically shaped. Girls are not typically given these types of things. These gendered toys may be a major cause in this problem. This all leads me to conclude that if men are typically better at mental rotation than women it is because they have been doing it longer.

So why is mental rotation even important at all? Some speculate that it may improve one’s ability to dance or play a musical instrument. This would mean that it has a hand in one knowing where and how their body moves through space basically. However, this field needs some more research. Some other simple tasks that mental rotation helps us with every day is to recognize people from different angles. Say you see someone from the side and you don’t recognize them as being your roommate, a person you typically see quite often. The example listed in the first article I mentioned leads to possibly the most important use of mental rotation, which is the ability to read and make sense of maps. We are lucky to live in a society that has some high tech gadgets, such as GPS, that make map reading nearly a thing of the past. However, the ability to find your way in the wilderness if there is no satellite signal is probably a good skill to have. Realizing that you know the person standing to the side right next to you is also a good thing.

So how do we fix this? Good news: mental rotation is a skill that can be taught and learned. One study in particular talks about how video games enhanced female participant’s mental rotation skill to a point where it was equal to men’s in a very short amount of time, about ten hours. In fact, there are many different studies that advocate video games as a way to improve one’s spatial reasoning skills. Some other articles mention that sports are a good way to help boost these spatial skills.

As a woman who always shunned dolls and embraced Legos and Lincoln Logs (does anyone know what those are anymore??), who loves to play video games, from Bioshock to Minecraft to Dota 2 (judge me if you will, I don’t mind), who plays multiple instruments, never danced but did participate in rigorous gymnastics until I was 14, and a participator in my high school field hockey team and horseback riding ever since I can remember anything else in my life, I would hope very much that my spatial and mental rotation skills would lead me to become a fabulous map reader if need-be.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

By the way, the answer to the first picture is number 4.