I have a terrible sense of direction. I rarely have a very good idea of where I am, which direction is which, what’s where. And when I do have an idea, it’s usually wrong. So I’ve always been interested in the science behind sense of direction.
Myself excepted, men generally have a “better” sense of direction than women, in that they are able to create mental maps and use them to navigate through unfamiliar territory. Women, on the other hand, tend to rely more on landmarks when they navigate.
Researchers are suggesting that a woman’s way of navigating might have advantages in a traditional hunter/gatherer society. While men are out chasing antelopes and using their mental maps to make a beeline home with the meat, women might be using their landmark strategy to more efficiently collect plants to eat.
Luis Pacheco-Cobos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and his colleagues followed Mexican mushroom hunters for two seasons, mapping their movements and estimating exertion. Men and women gathered the same amount of mushrooms. But men ranged farther and higher up the mountain, while women travelled less distance to gather the same amount of mushrooms.
In modern foraging societies, most of the gathering of plant material is done by women, and it seems likely that was the case as humans evolved. The research bolsters the theory that women’s navigational strategies are different than men’s because they make them more efficient plant gatherers.
Here’s the piece I wrote on this for The Economist.