Gender Differences in Large-Scale and Small-Scale Spatial Ability: A Systematic Review Based on Behavioral and Neuroimaging Research

Front Behav Neurosci. 2019 Jun 18;13:128. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00128. eCollection 2019.


Background: As we human beings are living in a multidimensional space all the time. Therefore, spatial ability is vital for the survival and development of individuals. However, males and females show gender differences in this ability. So, are these gender differences influenced by the scale type of spatial ability? It's not well specified. Therefore, to tackle this issue, we conducted the current research from the behavioral and neural level. Methods: Study 1 used the general meta-analysis method to explore whether individuals display the same gender differences in large- and small-scale spatial ability. Study 2 used the method of Activation Likelihood Estimation to identify the commonalities and distinctions of the brain activity between males and females on large- and small-scale spatial ability. Results: Study 1 showed that in behavior performance, males outperformed females in both large-scale and small-scale spatial ability, but the effect size of the gender difference in large-scale spatial ability is significantly greater than that in small-scale spatial ability. In addition, Study 2 showed that in terms of neural activity, males and females exhibited both similarities and differences no matter in large-scale or small-scale spatial ability. Especially, the contrast analysis between females and males demonstrated a stronger activation in the brain regions of bilateral lentiform nucleus and bilateral parahippocampal gyrus in large-scale spatial ability, and correspondence in right sub-gyral, right precuneus, and left middle frontal gyrus in small-scale spatial ability. Conclusions: The results indicated that the reason why females performed not so well in large-scale spatial ability was that they were more susceptible to emotions and their parahippocampal gyrus worked less efficiently than males; females performed not so well in small-scale spatial ability because they mostly adopted the egocentric strategy and their sub-gyral also worked less efficiently than males. The two different reasons have made for gender differences in favor of males in terms of spatial ability and such gender differences have different manifestations in large-scale and small-scale spatial ability. Possible implications of the results for understanding the issue of gender differences in spatial ability are discussed.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; gender differences; large-scale spatial ability; meta-analysis; small-scale spatial ability.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review