Why Women Can’t Read Maps

I can’t read maps. I have misdirected myself, my husband, the entire family and carloads of friends for years in several different countries. We have ended up miles from our planned destination, usually hungry, hot, tired, and sometimes out of petrol, far from a hotel or even a petrol station. I have seen my nearest and dearest look at me with murder on their minds.
Travelling in the outskirts of Rome with Italian friends, Patricia and Luigi, some years ago, we noticed that they had solved their map-reading problems with one of those little satellite navigation boxes. My husband kept remarking on the sensuality of the female Italian voice coming from the box and asking where he could get something similar for our own car. Patricia and I, somehow, found the voice intensely annoying and Luigi, with typical male Italian chivalry, switched the system off, telling us all we only had ‘a few kilometres to go’. Patricia seemed a little worried but I offered to use the map to guide us for the last bit of the journey. We ended up at a disused military airport that had been closed in 1973. This led to an explosion in Italian from Patricia, and Luigi, ever the gentleman, apologising profusely for his earlier chivalry in turning off the satellite system.
I used to think I was lacking a skill that other women had in abundance as we travelled on some scary motorway on the continent and I desperately tried to figure out if left on the map was in reality right and finally turning the map up-side down in order to ‘see’ the road, flicking the map all over the place and obscuring the view of the by now rather irritated (to put it mildly) husband. We would scream at each other while the traffic roared around us, the exits zipped past and we ended up missing the one we should have taken.
I was slowly coming to terms with my disability and learning to live with it, when articles about this very subject started to appear in the press. I discovered to my delight that I was not alone. Women can’t read maps! It’s a scientific fact.
It seems that the brains of men and women function in different ways. Our brains aren’t different, we just use them differently. The human brain – male or female – is composed of about 40 percent grey matter and 60 percent white matter. The grey matter is used to process information and use skills such as mathematics, map-reading and intellectual thought. The white matter connects the brain’s processing centres and is central to emotional thought, language and the ability to multi-task. And because women, for some reason, tend to use less grey matter-central to map – reading skills – they tend to have difficulty with these kind of tasks. When given intelligence tests, men used 6.5 times more grey matter than women, while women used nine times more white matter.
But women outshine men when it comes to vocabulary. In childhood, girls’ vocabulary develops more quickly than that of boys. An article I found recently on the internet claimed that by adulthood women can speak 20.000 to 25.000 words a day compared to a man’s 7.000 to 10.000. It appears, however, that there is no scientific proof of this. The figures were dreamed up by a marriage counsellor some years ago and the statement became an urban myth. On the other hand, my friend Patricia’s amazing verbal skills in the closing moments of our Italian episode makes me think there might be something in it.
Research carried out at the University of Edinburgh has shown that women have weaker spatial awareness than men which also makes it more difficult for them to read maps. Still other tests have shown that it is more difficult for women than men to remember the locations of empty boxes on a grid. But when the boxes were replaced with images of flowers, hot air balloons, motorbikes and such like, both sexes scored equally. (Imagine the head start we would have if the images were shoes and handbags).
So, I wasn’t a freak. What a relief!
It didn’t change a thing. Some years ago, we were driving through France during the hottest day of the hottest summer in decades. You guessed it, we got lost again. The usual scenario followed and, as we stopped at a petrol station and my husband refuelled the car, I went into the café to have a soothing cup of coffee while I waited for the steam to stop blowing out of his ears. As I sat there, I wondered what I would do if he suddenly, in a fit of pique, took off without me. The idea for ‘Finding Margo’ was born.
But there’s a twist. In the novel, it is Margo who walks out on her husband on the motorway in the middle of France. In her case, the feminine inability to read maps sends her life in a new direction. She doesn’t need a map to find where she is going…

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kimberly Menozzi
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 12:58:18

    Very interesting, Susanne… But what does this say about women like me, who read maps better than the men in our lives do?
    (Aside from the fact that we’re well-matched, that is?)

    I loved seeing where your inspiration for Finding Margo came from. I’m fascinated by the myriad things which send our minds off in a million different directions.


  2. susannefromsweden
    Apr 28, 2010 @ 15:41:07

    You’re the exception that proves the rule, Kim!


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