Tag Archives: Women

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.

Woman with Super Vision

The article that I found falls into the category of cognition because of how it relates to the mental process of receiving knowledge through one of the five senses; our sight. The retina is the beginning of visual information processing, and it is here that light hits light sensitive cells known as receptors. These receptors are shaped like rods and cones (the rods being much bigger), and they are what turn the light into nerve impulses that are then transported to the cortex of the brain by the optic nerve.

Nearly everyone has three types of cone cells that distinguish different bandwidths of light. The combination of these signals determine the color we see reflecting off of an object. Despite the fact that our sensitivity to these cells differ from one another, one person’s perception of color tends to match the perception of others. It was thought that being color blind was the only anomaly to this process of color (people who have a hard time differentiating certain colors because of a faulty cone in the retina), but a theory has suggested that an extra cone could produce the opposite effect and allow a person to see multiple variations of the colors we already see. This fourth cone is seen in different animals, such as zebra-finches and goldfish.


The article is about a woman named Concetta Antico who has tetrachromacy; a genetic condition in which the development of the retinas is affected by a specific gene variation, and results in her having four cones. What may seem like a solid color to the rest of us, can appear to be a multitude of colors to Antico. For example, instead of a green leaf, she sees a green leaf with red hues tracing its edges. Instead of a dark gray shadow, she sees a shadow filled with “lilac and turquoise and blue”. Apparently, Antico can see 99 MILLION more hues than the rest of us who are stuck with trichromatic vision (three cones). Luckily, Antico is an artist. Through her paintings she hopes to give people a glimpse into her world of colors, allowing them to experience the beauty that they’re missing out on.

On the left is Antico's painting of what she sees. On the right is the same image, but to the normal eye.

Tetrochromatic Vision vs. Trichromatic Vision

The original article I found seemed very interesting and eye catching, but the actual information it gives about how our vision works didn’t seem to be strong enough evidence due to the little information it gave. However, I found a second article, that mentions the same woman, on BBC.com that goes into great detail about tetrachromacy in humans, and the research behind it. This second article also gives more information about Antico; how grocery shopping is a nightmare because of all the loud colors, and how her favorite color is white because it’s the most calm, yet still beautiful.

I thought it was interesting that tetrachromacy is thought to be a condition only found in women. The thought process behind this is that our red and green cones are found in a gene that only lies on the X chromosome. Since women have two X chromosomes, they are able to hold two separate versions of this same gene. It’s estimated that 12% of the female population are tetrochromats.