Men and women approach mental rotational tasks in different ways

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Men are not better than women at spatial cognition – such as map reading – is the principal finding from ground-breaking work by researchers at Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, hosted at University of Limerick (UL), Ireland.

Employing cutting-edge eye-tracking technology researchers Dr Mark Campbell and Dr Adam Toth of the Lero Esports Science Research Lab at UL found that there is no male advantage in mental rotation abilities associated with spatial cognition competences.

Dr Campbell said the skill of spatial cognition or our ability to navigate our environment has been the battleground for almost 40 years for researchers claiming that males have a distinct performance advantage on tests of spatial cognition, notably the mental rotations test.

Studying the cognitive proficiency of individuals and gamers is a key aim of the Lero Esports Science Research Lab which opened in 2019 and is the first of its kind in Ireland.

“Better performance on these tests is strongly associated with higher IQ and better performance in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) subjects in schools and colleges,” Dr Campbell explained.

Dr Toth sums up the results: “So males are better than females?

Well no, actually. Our study found that there is no male advantage in mental rotation abilities. By lengthening the time allowed to complete the test, the male performance advantage diminished entirely suggesting that the so-called sex difference in mental rotation is simply not there or may be explained by other factors.”

Dr Campbell said the skill of spatial cognition or our ability to navigate our environment has been the battleground for almost 40 years for researchers claiming that males have a distinct performance advantage on tests of spatial cognition, notably the mental rotations test.

The research published in Nature Scientific Reports also found for the first time that both males and females frequently employed different gaze strategies during the cognitive tests to get to the correct answer.

In other words, men and women approach the task in a different way to get the same result.

The research paper is entitled: “Investigating sex differences, cognitive effort, strategy, and performance on a computerised version of the mental rotations test via eye-tracking.”

One hundred University of Limerick (UL) undergraduate and postgraduate level psychology and sports science students volunteered to take part in the test carried out by the Lero researchers. The 47 men and 53 women were in good health and had an average age of 23.


The figure mental rotation task (figure MRT) is typically used to investigate spatial cognition [12]. This task involves presenting participants with pairs of three-dimensional (3D) figures projected in two dimensions and having them decide whether the two figures are the same (with response time (RT) as the dependent variable of interest) [3].

The figure pairs are either identical or mirror images of each other, and the second image is rotated from the original to varying degrees. Since RTs increase in proportion to the angular rotational difference between the figure pairs, it is thought that the figure MRT is completed by mentally rotating one of the figures and placing the two figures on top of each other.

The hand mental rotation task (HMRT) is a type of MRT. In the task, participants are presented with pictures or line drawings of a hand at various rotation angles and asked to decide whether a left or right hand is being shown.

Results for RT and brain function measurements during this task show that participants may mentally rotate their own hand to place it on top of the displayed hand picture [49].

Several studies have revealed gender differences in figure MRT performance. In general, men perform better than women [1016].

As a reason for the gender differences, Wei et al. showed that the gray matter volume of a male’s right anterior hippocampus, which acquires or encodes new visuospatial information, is larger than that of a female [17].

On the other hand, few studies have assessed gender differences in the HMRT, and findings are mixed. For example, some studies have shown that gender does not seem to affect correct response rates [1819], while others found that women tend to select a higher number of incorrect responses [20].

Some research has also shown that women tend to have longer RTs [20], and others that men demonstrate longer RTs than do women [18]. These conflicting findings demonstrate that gender differences in HMRT performance are not fully understood.

In the present study, we aimed to clarify the gender differences in performance ability and strategy in HMRT, using correct response rate and RT as indicators. We also aimed to assess a more accurate RT for the hand mental rotation by subtracting the time of the simple motion.


Source:
University of Limerick

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