Gender Bender in Cyberspace

One of the largest known cognitive advantages men have over women - adeptness at “mental rotation” - vanishes when subjects are exposed to VR technology.

Marketing gurus for multimedia games may have to radically rethink their demographic strategies: virtual reality technology, it turns out, is hardly just a “guy thing.”
In fact, you can expect women to be donning VR goggles in droves as a result of a new USC study showing that women have a lot to gain from the experience.
It seems that one of the largest known cognitive advantages men have over women - adeptness at “mental rotation” -- vanishes when subjects are exposed to VR technology, according to Albert Rizzo, an electrical engineer at the School of Engineering’s Integrated Media Systems Center and a psychologist with USC’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
The ability to orient objects spatially in one’s mind is known as mental rotation. Usually, the skill is measured by a standard pencil-and-paper test. Subjects look at a group of line drawings, each showing an object from different angles or as mirror images. In five minutes, they must match as many sets as they can.
“Men consistently score higher than women on the mental rotation test, and previous research has found an inverse relationship between estrogen levels and spatial ability,” Rizzo says.

But what ifyou replace the pencil with a joystick? To find out the answer to that question, Rizzo tested 60 men and women between the ages of 18 and 34, first with the standard mental rotation test, then using a VR system.
In the paper test, “as expected, the men scored significantly better than the women,” Rizzo says.
But in the VR tests, the gender gap disappeared. Wearing special goggles and wielding a hand control, women were as successful as men at mentally rotating 3-D blocks that appeared to be floating toward them on a large rear-projected computer screen.
“We did not find any gender differences in the virtual reality tests of mental rotation,” Rizzo says.
What’s more, the cognitive improvement seems to be long-lasting. In the final phase of the study, Rizzo had subjects retake a different version of the pencil-and-paper test. Those who had done poorly the first time got significantly better scores.
“This suggests that we can use virtual reality to help people with poor rotational skills to improve them,” Rizzo says.

Women may not be the only beneficiaries of these findings. Another group not noted for its techno-savvy also stands to gain. Rizzo plans to administer his test next to senior citizens, in research funded by the National Institute of Aging.
“We are anxious to see how seniors react to this technology,” Rizzo says. “Most research in this area has been done with young people.”


Why Rotate?

Being able to rotate an object mentally may seem like a rather useless accomplishment, but actually it has many benefits in everyday life: in driving, in sports, in packing a suitcase or moving a large sofa through a small door.
It has also been linked to high-level mathematics performance. Engineering professor Albert Rizzo believes poor mental rotation skills may be one reason why women are underrepresented in engineering, design and architecture.
Mental rotation is also an important test used to diagnose traumatic brain injuries and to distinguish between Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Most Alzheimer’s patients have significant loss of spatial orientation, unlike patients with various other forms of dementia, he says. The researcher hopes to perform his paper vs. VR test on Alzheimer’s patients and patients with other dementias.
“This has potentially profound implications for understanding brain functioning,” Rizzo says.


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