Monday, August 23, 2010

Never Ask a Gay Man for Directions

I always seem to be the guy that people ask for directions. That is to say, me, the spatially challenged, head-to-the-ground expatriate living in Belfast. Usually, I try to wing it so that I don’t come across as completely stupid. But try as I might, my response always ends up sputtering its way into a wan shrug and the trusty fallback, “Sorry, I’m an American. I’m afraid you’ve asked the wrong person.” Given America’s cartoon character status throughout much of Europe, being an apologetically na├»ve American greases my way out of a lot of awkward social encounters here, so this tactic usually works just fine. (Unless I get a chatty person who’s not in any hurry and I’m their first real live link to the New World. Then I’m in for a lengthy discussion about Obama and Disney World.)

But the truth is I’ve called Northern Ireland home for almost three years now and I should be able to give directions like a local. It’s not like people are asking me how to get to some little-known footpath deep in the Mourne Mountains—they just want to know how to get to the nearest pharmacy or the quickest route to the Student Union at the university where I work. And it’s not just giving directions I struggle with, either. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a knack for getting lost. I’ve wasted more of my life wandering around car parks, hospitals, and campuses than I care to know. Maps? Anathema. I might as well be looking at hieroglyphics on a papyrus role.

What makes my "condition" even more ironic is that, according to family legend, I’m descended from the great Danish navigator Vitus Bering. Well, he wasn’t all that great, since he got shipwrecked on the Commander Islands and lost nearly half his crew before dying of an unknown disease. But I imagine he would have at least needed to know his way around a nautical map to have been commissioned by Peter the Great and hailed as the first European to spy the southern shores of Alaska. So if I come from such Euclidian-headed genetic stock, why is my own brain slow as molasses when it comes to finding my way around town?

According to mounting evidence being gathered by University of East London psychologist Qazi Rahman and his colleagues, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m gay. Mind you, it’s not that I’m poor at directions because I’m gay, but rather Rahman has discovered a nontrivial neural correlation between these two psychological traits. This correlation is similar in nature to the finding that left-handed individuals demonstrate better memory for events than right-handers due to their generally larger corpus callosums, a neurological boon that facilitates episodic recall. Southpaws aren’t better at recalling memories because they’re left-handed, but because of the common physical (brain) denominator underlying the expression of both traits.

Due to atypical hormonal influences on the developing fetus during prenatal growth, including the amount of circulating androgens (e.g. testosterone) present in the mother’s womb, homosexuals (both men and women) often display several telltale “bio-demographic” markers—residual bodily characteristics that indicate the prenatal effect of these hormonal factors. For example, you may already know about the well-publicized “2D:4D effect,” scientific shorthand for the peculiar finding that, for both straight women and gay men, the length ratio between the second and fourth digits (fingers) is, on average, greater than it is for gay women and straight men. Since the brain is just another physical template, there are also differences between straights and gays in brain structure (notably in the hippocampus) and therefore cognitive abilities. For example, gay men and straight women tend to outperform gay women and straight men on most verbal measures, whereas straight men outperform the other groups on measures of spatial intelligence.

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