The Octagon Navigation Task Reveals Sex Differences in Spatial Ability
The Morris Water Maze (MWM) is commonly used in research for investigating spatial cognition and hippocampal-dependent learning in nonhuman animals. One of the most consistent findings in the literature is the male advantage in spatial ability. Usually, the MWM is adapted as a virtual reality for testing in humans. In our lab, we constructed a real-world navigation task and found that by default, men implemented an allocentric strategy whereas women adopted an egocentric strategy when finding the target location. Based on these findings, the present study designed a table-top version of the MWM. The goal of each subject is to locate a hidden target by navigating on an octagonal board using different spatial navigation strategies. The allocentric condition experiment tested 60 subjects (30 women) ages 18-25 and examined their ability to find a hidden target located relative to constant environmental room cues. Results revealed that men outperformed women on this task. In the egocentric condition experiment, 60 subjects (28 women) were directed to find a target location that remained consistent with respect to their body axis and starting position in the experiment. Women outperformed men in the egocentric condition experiment. In the neutral condition, the target was located in the center of the board and could be found using either egocentric or allocentric strategy, which resulted in no sex differences. Our results suggest that when a spatial task requires competition between two sources of information, an egocentric strategy appears more prominent in women whereas an allocentric strategy appears more prominent in males. Future work may use fMRI to see if sex differences in spatial navigation will correlate to differences in functional connectivity.