London Blog

Of sexual and spatial orientations

Gay men think like women when it comes to solving spatial problems, says a researcher from Queen Mary, University of London. Contrary to press reports, it’s unlikely to have an effect on anyone’s driving.

Katherine Nightingale

Qazi Rahman puts people through virtual reality mazes, to investigate navigation and spatial memory skills. In a recent paper published in Hippocampus he describes how homosexual men are similar to women in some spatial behaviours.

Rahman, who has spent his career researching sexual orientation, is a lecturer in cognitive biology and director of psychology at Queen Mary, University of London.

What motivates you to do research into sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation is a fundamental human individual difference—second only to sex and race when you really think about what defines you. If we can understand sexual orientation variation we can understand some sex differences and where they come from.

What was this particular study exploring?

Differences in spatial memory between men and women are already established but their sexual orientation is never specified in studies. We wanted to explore the role of sexual orientation on spatial memory performance.

What kinds of tests did you use in this study and what do they evaluate?

We used two common tests of spatial learning and memory, the Morris Water Maze (MWM) and the Radial Arm Maze (RAM), which were designed for animals and made into human analogues using virtual reality by colleagues at Yale University.

The MWM tests the ability to find a hidden platform submerged under the virtual pool. Subjects start from a different place each time, so it tests the ability to form cognitive maps independent of your own body perspective using external cues.

The RAM test measures people’s ability to find rewards in the arms of a maze. RAM is more generous in allowing error in the use of external cues to locate the goal. The number of possible ‘routes’ in the MWM is much larger since there are no confined passageways like in the RAM.

Left: Screenshot from the Morris Water Maze. Right: Screenshot from the Radial Arm Maze

What did you find?

In the MWM we found that gay men and heterosexual and lesbian women took longer to find the hidden platform compared with heterosexual men. The differences are large, almost one standard deviation of a difference.

Heterosexual men were faster from the first trial and maintained this advantage across a block of trials. However, gay men and heterosexual men spent more time in the correct area of the virtual pool compared to the female groups, suggesting that gay men are female-like in their spatial learning and ability to update information depending on where they are, but they are similar to heterosexual men in their eventual spatial memory for that information.

In the RAM test we found that both gay and heterosexual males had a greater ability than females overall.

Why do gay and heterosexual men have differing spatial cognition?

I think these differences might be wired by prenatal factors, particularly early hormonal modulation of neural interactions that determine spatial memory outcomes. This is consistent with the idea of a cross-sex shift in prenatal sexual differentiation of the brain in homosexuals, accounting for cognitive and behavioural profiles that aren’t typical of their gender.

What impact do you think differences in spatial cognition have in the ‘real world’? Could straight men be better drivers than gay men for example?

Unlikely. I think that driving is pretty organised in our modern environments, which are rich in all sorts of distant and local cues that men and women, gay or straight, could use. The headlines splashed across the British press about driving were completely taken out of context. I would be interested to see how the groups performed in a driving task in novel environments, one where people had to start from different positions to reach a goal and one in which we could manipulate the number of distant and local cues.

Were they any differences between gay and heterosexual women?

Homosexual and heterosexual women are alike in cognitive profiles in almost all studies, except in a study we conducted on verbal fluency, where lesbian women are male-like. This verbal fluency finding is interesting because it could suggest that verbal fluency is among the earlier and more sensitive functions to be affected by whatever factors cause cross-sex shifts in cognition among homosexuals (gay men are female-like in verbal fluency), after which lesbian women are ‘protected’ from further sex-atypical differentiation leaving their cognitive profile female-like.

What’s the value of virtual reality testing in spatial recognition research?

Simulated environments allow precise control and analysis over parameters such as speed, cue type, randomisation etc. And they are becoming cheaper to produce than devising large, real life environments which do not permit as strict control.

However, they are limited because they do not have other important cues such as the sense of motion and feedback from the muscles. This is why we hope to use ‘immersive’ virtual reality helmets and gloves to interact with the environment. Again this depends on funding: anyone out there want to fund us?

How do you hope your research will be used in practice?

I think the growing work on sexual orientation is important for gay and lesbian mental health. We know these groups are different in several ways and that’s a wonderful example of our diversity as a species. This diversity is also important when things go awry for that population. For example, if gay men show a different cognitive profile, when they get older and start to suffer from age-related cognitive decline (as we all do), and we want to measure the extent of that decline, it makes no sense to compare them to a reference group of heterosexuals. So we need to tailor our clinical assessment methods and ultimately treatments to the differences between these groups.

What’s the next step for this research?

The next step is to look at strategy differences. What unique strategies are straight men using from the first trial that maintain their advantage throughout the spatial learning trials for example? We’d like to use different mazes where we modulate the size of the ‘cognitive map’ by manipulating the number, position and type of cues. Strategy is important here; earlier work suggests males traverse a more direct, quicker route in the MWM pool towards the platform, whereas females swim around the edge of the pool in a circular fashion until they hit the platform, taking longer. So, importantly, the different abilities might be an artefact of a strategy difference—we want to know whether gay men might be using female strategies.

We also want to look at the effects of age. We know that spatial memory declines more rapidly in men than it does in women as they get older, so we want to explore whether this is true of gay men compared to lesbian women also.

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