Closing the Gender Gap

Yikes! Rhoda the Rhesus Monkey is aghast at how poorly her sisters did in finding hidden treats.

Adding to the controversial fray of whether "math is hard" for girls, new research with monkeys seems to suggest that males have an edge--at least while young. The findings also show that female monkeys easily catch up with a little training, indicating that curricula could be designed to help both girls and boys maximize their potential.

Many studies have suggested that male primates, including humans, outperform females in tests of spatial memory and math. Researchers also knew that such advantages declined with age, but no one had compared this decline between males and females.

To investigate, a team led by neuroscientist Agnes Lacreuse of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, tested 90 young, middle aged, and old monkeys of both sexes in a game of spatial ability. A researcher hid a treat under a disk on a board with 18 possible spots, which the monkey then had to find. In successive turns, the researcher hid additional treats under other disks, and the monkey had to find the treats in the correct order. The trial ended when the monkey missed a treat.

Young male monkeys averaged 2.6 treats versus the young females' 2.2, suggesting better innate spatial memory in the males. The old monkeys of both sexes did worse than their young counterparts, but the males lost enough talent that both groups performed at the same level. This suggests that age took more of a toll on the male rhesus' spatial ability, the team reports in this month's issue of Behavioral Neuroscience.

The team then took an additional 22 monkeys and this time trained them to find the treats before subjecting them to the spatial memory game. The training didn't help the older animals of either sex or the young males, the researchers found. But it did close the gap between the young females and the young males, suggesting that innate spatial memory ability in females could be augmented by learning. The results will help researchers pinpoint cognitive systems in human brains for further investigation, says neuroscientist Jeri Janowsky of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Neuroscientist Janice Juraska of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests that changes to the educational system may narrow the performance gaps in subjects between boys and girls.

Related sites
Yerkes National Primate Research Center
Information on spatial memory

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