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Navigational Differences Between Men and Women

Tristan Gooley

Are there any differences in the abilities of men and women to navigate?

Anyone who has sat in the front of a car with someone of the opposite sex is likely to have an opinion on this subject, although it’s not something that I had given a huge amount of thought to, before an interviewer asked me on live national radio.

Men and women have signed up for my courses in roughly equal numbers since, so I do not think I offended too many people in my answer. I am still a long way from having any final or definitive answers to this question, but I have certainly taken more of an interest since.

Looking for answers to this in history is fraught with problems. There are sexist biases in most earlier cultures and the record itself is often biased towards the male perspective, ‘the powerful role of women, moreover, has been virtually ignored’. We find this bias woven into the world around some cultures. The Innuit see the steady east-southeast wind as male, but the temperamental west-northwest wind as female. The Gwi of the Kalahari know a male rain that is hard and driving, it ‘shouts loudly’ and comes from thunderstorms. There is also a female rain which is steadier, ‘speaks softly and is gentle’.

The roles of men and women have tended to favour men’s opportunities to improve their navigational ability, but not universally as Colonel Dodge noticed when observing the Native Americans in the 19th century,
‘The older women have a vast amount of outdoor work, hunting up stray ponies, etc., particularly in winter, when it is too cold for her lord and master to be out, or when he is probably losing the stray animals at the gaming-table.’

Some cultures also recognize that the people who are chosen to do the navigating are not the best ones to pass on that knowledge. In the Australian outback, Lindsay discovered that the men made poor teachers and the ‘best of all instructors is an Aboriginal woman who has taught the art to many children in her time.’ This may be the reason that in some Pacific myths navigation is the gift of women.
The relationship between sex, our place in the universe and our journeys in it has long been an imperfect one and although always changing the modern age has obviously not ironed out all biases. In the late sixties S. Jocelyn Bell Burnell worked to help discover the strange and ‘phenomenal objects’ in the universe that are now known as pulsars,

‘Arguably, my student status and perhaps my gender were also my downfall with respect to the Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Professor Antony Hewish and Professor Martin Ryle.’

It remains a contentious area. Even if we appreciate that opportunities in the workplace should be equal, it does not mean that the two sexes are equal in all innate abilities.  Men do, on average, run faster and have a reputation for being more aggressive. Women have a better sense of smell and a reputation for being able to do more than one thing at a time. The world is a much more interesting place because of the differences and fairer one for not deciding everything on the basis of irrelevant ones.

Part of the challenge is that we live in a society that recognizes male and female strengths and abilities more fairly, if not perfectly, than has historically been the case, but we are interested in an ability that may have been shaped prior to such developments. Even if there was no genetic difference at one stage of human development that does not rule out the possibility that sociological and anthropological conditions introduced them. If a woman’s genes were more likely to be passed on by her physical appearance than her hunting and foraging ability then those are the genes that would be favoured and vice versa. That may not represent the world we live in now, but it may be the one that our genes have all sprung from. So are there any differences?

‘Whenever a sexual difference has been found, most spatial tests on humans, of whatever age, have shown males to be more adept than females.’

This quote by the scientist, Robin Baker, who led research into human navigational ability, seems fairly conclusive. As ever it is not quite so simple. Baker discovered that although men often performed better than women in the tests it could have been because of their reading of external cues, which may have been due to experience. In one experiment the women’s ability to orientate themselves actually deteriorated after they took their blindfolds off. Women were relying on intuition more than the men who were improving their ability to find direction by using external clues like the sun and the wind. Conversely, women proved more effective at navigating in situations where external clues could not be used. They were better able to orientate themselves at the end of short journeys as a blindfolded passenger for example.

If, as Baker suggests, these differences are due to natural selection then it can be traced back through primitive behaviour to monkeys. The male traits being consistent with the ‘solitary long-distance exploration’ that is more prevalent in males of tribes across the world as well as primates like the Japanese Macaque.
This is where my reading of the situation diverges from Baker’s and the probably the scientific community as a whole. I should emphasise that I have not conducted any rigorous scientific experiments to date.
When I fell in love with the subject of natural navigation it was because it addressed a desire in me to reconcile a scientific, pragmatic view of the world with something more fundamental, perhaps even primeval and certainly holistic. Science can explain why a wind blows, but I doubt that it will ever properly explain the desire I sometimes have to go for a walk on a windy day. My research into and experience of the subject has always needed to veer between the scientific to the experiential. I think for this reason I have a different theory as to differences in navigational ability between men and women in this area.

The first thing I should say is that I believe we can account for a lot of the differences in ability between individuals in a non-gender-specific way. The individual attributes, aptitudes and characters, of men and women overlap so thoroughly that any attempt to isolate individual traits will have very widespread exceptions. If I describe an aggressive muscular mathematician with facial hair and a body-odour problem, then female readers may rush to disown them, but they cannot do so with total authority.

A key difference between individuals is what is sometimes referred to as ‘left brain’ or ‘right brain’ thinking or an analytical versus intuitive approach. I think this may help to understand not just the difference between some men and women in this area, but individuals generally and may possibly hold the key to navigating more effectively and at the very least enjoying the process more. This is how.

I do believe that most people have a bias towards either objective analytical thought (left-brain) or intuitive holistic subjective thought (right-brain). I do also believe that there is a slight bias towards left-brain thinking in men and right-brain thinking in women. Natural navigation tends to favour those that do not hold onto one type of thinking too religiously. My experience in the field has proven, to my own satisfaction, that both approaches have severe limitations and we can build a fuller and more accurate picture by trying to improve your weaker side. Let’s look at an example.

A test that I have conducted with dozens of men and women is to ask them to look at a photograph of a country house, taken in low light, and then ask in which direction the picture is taken. There are numerous rational logical clues including a low sun on the left side of the picture. There are also some holistic clues that can only be spotted by thinking beyond the physical, these include the orientation of the garden and the fact that there are a lot of lights on in the house.

Men and women have faired equally well in this task, but the approach is subtly different. Men favour the physical clues, women favour the holistic. I made one discovery by accident, because the large laminated photos were quite expensive to produce I only printed five. This meant when teaching a group of twenty it was necessary to form teams. I did this by convenience, grouping people according to where they sat in the room. This meant that there have been some all-male teams, some all-female teams and some mixed groups.

Something that I began to notice is that the all-male teams were quite regularly getting it confidently right or wrong and the all-female teams were getting it hesitantly right and wrong, but slightly more were getting it right than the all-male teams. The mixed teams often managed to get it confidently right.

The all-male teams saw the low sun and focused on this, making the fair assumption that it was the start or end of the day. The objective analytic clues to back this up were a lot more difficult, including tree shape and faint stars. The men were divided in their ability to work out whether it was dawn or dusk, but settled on one.

The all-female teams also saw the sun and made a similar assessment but then tended to jump to a more holistic view that took into account human behaviour. There is a large garden in the photograph foreground and all the lights in the house were on. The holistic assessment often went along the lines of: most people like to have a south-facing garden and nobody turns all the lights on in a house at dawn.

The mixed teams often used the holistic view to back up observations of a more analytical nature. The shape of the trees and other clues do fit a north-facing pattern quite readily when you have the idea about the lights or the garden to work with.

This is only anecdotal, there is no academically valid data that I have accumulated, only what I have observed – this is mainly because at the time of these observations I am being paid to teach, not research. It would also be fair to say that many individuals and groups have gone against this model, but if I was to bet on a team confidently solving the puzzle then it would be a mixed team.

The lesson for all of us if there is one in this is that it is very helpful in natural navigation, and probably other natural challenges, to understand whether we have a left or right-brain bias and to not let that dictate our every thought. Nature reveals clues in equal measure to an objective analytical approach and a subjective holistic one, if we charge ahead with only one of these we are likely to miss half the picture.