In a study reported in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2005, Rahman and his colleagues found that gay men are like women in that they are more dependent on left-right landmark strategies for navigation (e.g., “turn right at the church”) than on Euclidian orientation strategies preferred by straight men (e.g., “the bar is 5 miles in an easterly direction”). And in a follow-up study published in 2008 in the journal Hippocampus, Rahman and his coauthor, psychologist Johanna Koerting, also from the University of East London, found that heterosexual males are unique from gay men, straight women, and gay women in that they perform significantly faster on a task requiring them to scout out novel terrain in order to find a hidden search target. (Note that the researchers only tested people who regarded themselves as exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. Bisexuals were excluded.)
Now before you go conjuring up exceptions to these general findings, note that they refer to aggregate population-level differences. Although I personally match Rahman’s cross-sex neurocognitive model for gay brains to the tee, my partner, Juan, is a walking GPS device who could have given old Uncle Vitus a run for his money. And Juan, unlike me, has a pronounced 2D:4D ratio. Furthermore, in science, a statistically significant difference between comparison groups may actually translate to negligible differences in the real world. Finally, Rahman is quick to point out that it’s not as though gay men simply have women’s brains, or that gay women have men’s brains. Rather, the brains of homosexuals are more like neurocognitive mosaics of both sexes. For example, lesbians do not appear to differ from heterosexual women on cognitive measures except for verbal fluency, where they score in the male-typical direction.
A final note. In writing this piece I happened upon a tangential empirical tidbit indicative of another physiological difference between homosexuals and heterosexuals. In addition to our navigational shortcomings, recent evidence suggests that gay people produce different armpit odors than straight people and these scents are detectable in forced choice trials. So perhaps if I stopped wearing deodorant this would deter people from asking me for directions.
In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature.