By Anne Gagliano
It’s 3:00 a.m., and my husband Mike and I are lost. We’re in a different town, a different state, even a different time zone, far from home. I’m in tears, begging him to stop somewhere, anywhere, and ask for directions; he looks at me as if I’m totally overreacting. We’ve just driven six hours from Atlanta, Georgia, after being forced to do so when our connecting flight was cancelled. We’re nearing Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which is our destination, but none of the signs seem to be indicating this, hence my panic. I’m convinced we’re in mortal danger, that we’ll simply drive aimlessly in the darkness until we run out of gas. Mike firmly and somewhat angrily tells me to relax, which only adds to my aggravation. Then, out of the darkness, our hotel emerges like a beacon of hope—ah, deliverance! We’re safe at last! He has somehow, magically and inexplicably, found it, and I am utterly amazed. Though relieved and grudgingly impressed, I swear I’ll never take a “road trip” into the unknown with him again. My fears at being lost and his refusal to ask for directions are simply too much fuel for a major marital fight.
Can any of you couples out there relate? Why is it that we women seem to know when we’re lost, admit it, and ask for help, and men do not? Are men that stubborn? Are women that helpless? The answer is a bit surprising as brain research now reveals, and the truth is, that men are better at finding their way than women. In this arena, the male brain truly is far superior, but don’t tell them this, it will only add to their ego and increase their tendency to refuse help.
Men use an entirely different section of the brain for navigation than women do—the left hippocampus. This is a nucleus deep inside the brain that is not activated in women. The hippocampus automatically codes where you are in space, giving men an inherent sense of depth reckoning or direction, as in east, west, etc. Their spatial abilities are superior as well; men can rotate objects in their mind and judge angle orientation, known as “visual spatial processing,” strengths measured in male babies as young as three months old. Because of these enhanced abilities, men can find their way out of unfamiliar territory, even areas with no visual cues such as dense woods, much more easily and consistently than women can. Women use their cerebral cortex for navigating, which means they go off landmarks and note direction that way; this system is not as efficient when the territory is unfamiliar, and that is why women may panic. But don’t get a swelled head, men; though women do get lost more easily, they are much quicker to realize it and will thus ask for directions.
But there’s more to it than just the navigational aspects of the brain: Hormones play a part as well. When men are faced with a risk (i.e., being lost), they get a huge rush of endorphins, which gives them a sense of well-being, confidence, even excitement. Mike viewed our “ordeal” as an adventure, which gave him the “courage” to plow ahead, unaided. A woman’s brain is not programmed to respond to risk in this way; instead of a rush of endorphins, women receive a dump load of cortisol—the anxiety hormone. Any threat becomes heightened because of this response; hence, my tears and near panic. It’s not fair, is it? Men get high, women get stressed out! Scientists believe this heightened fear response is for women’s protection; and who must be the protectors? Typically, the endorphin-high men.
A third ingredient adds to the males’ refusal to ask for directions, and that is his “fix-it” brain. Testosterone (the courage hormone) and spatial abilities combine to make men fixers by nature. Men will try to repair anything from emotional situations to broken appliances to being lost without seeking help because they are literally hard-wired to do so.
Last but not least, men don’t ask for directions because they quite frankly are not overly social. Asking means communicating with another human being, admitting defeat, and seeking counsel. Men don’t like to do any of these things. They are loners by nature and prefer to solve problems with as few words as possible. Women, of course, are quite the opposite; we welcome conversation, even with strangers, and have no problem asking for assistance. We are programmed to do so. The “tend and befriend” theory asserts this in nature; females form social groups to help care for their young and bond easily to do so.
Though exasperating and the cause of much angst and strife in a marriage, a man’s refusal to ask for directions really is a good thing. We wives can relax, our husbands can and will eventually find their way; their brains are beautifully designed to do this (at least they’re supposed to be). And here’s the best part: Spatial ability is the last thing to go in a man’s brain; it is the first thing to go in a woman’s. This is another reason why God in His wisdom meant for us to grow old together. Women retain their cognitive abilities longer, so when you go to the store as a little old couple, go together, as she’ll remember what to get and he’ll remember where the car is parked and how to get there. Vive la difference!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 28 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.