gender

Males' superior spatial ability probably not an evolutionary adaptation

Evidence against an evolutionary explanation for male superiority in spatial ability coves from a review of 35 studies covering 11 species: cuttlefish, deer mice, horses, humans, laboratory mice, meadow voles, pine voles, prairie voles, rats, rhesus macaques and talastuco-tucos (a type of burrowing rodent). In eight species, males demonstrated moderately superior spatial skills to their female counterparts, regardless of the size of their territories or the extent to which males ranged farther than females of the same species.

03/2013

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Menopause forgetfulness greatest early in postmenopause

January, 2013

A smallish study suggests that the cognitive effects of menopause are greatest in the first year after menopause.

Being a woman of a certain age, I generally take notice of research into the effects of menopause on cognition. A new study adds weight, perhaps, to the idea that cognitive complaints in perimenopause and menopause are not directly a consequence of hormonal changes, but more particularly, shows that early post menopause may be the most problematic time.

The study followed 117 women from four stages of life: late reproductive, early and late menopausal transition, and early postmenopause. The late reproductive period is defined as when women first begin to notice subtle changes in their menstrual periods, but still have regular menstrual cycles. Women in the transitional stage (which can last for several years) experience fluctuation in menstrual cycles, and hormone levels begin to fluctuate significantly.

Women in the early stage of post menopause (first year after menopause), as a group, were found to perform more poorly on measures of verbal learning, verbal memory, and fine motor skill than women in the late reproductive and late transition stages. They also performed significantly worse than women in the late menopausal transition stage on attention/working memory tasks.

Surprisingly, self-reported symptoms such as sleep difficulties, depression, and anxiety did not predict memory problems. Neither were the problems correlated with hormone levels (although fluctuations could be a factor).

This seemingly contradicts earlier findings from the same researchers, who in a slightly smaller study found that those experiencing poorer working memory and attention were more likely to have poorer sleep, depression, and anxiety. That study, however, only involved women approaching and in menopause. Moreover, these aspects were not included in the abstract of the paper but only in the press release, and because I don’t have access to this particular journal, I cannot say whether there is something in the data that explains this. Because of this, I am not inclined to put too much weight on this point.

But we may perhaps take the findings as support for the view that cognitive problems experienced earlier in the menopause cycle are, when they occur, not a direct result of hormonal changes.

The important result of this study is the finding that the cognitive problems often experienced by women in their 40s and 50s are most acute during the early period of post menopause, and the indication that the causes and manifestations are different at different stages of menopause.

It should be noted, however, that there were only 14 women in the early postmenopause stage. So, we shouldn’t put too much weight on any of this. Nevertheless, it does add to the picture research is building up about the effects of menopause on women’s cognition.

While the researchers said that this effect is probably temporary — which was picked up as the headline in most media — this was not in fact investigated in this study. It would be nice to have some comparison with those, say, two or three and five years post menopause (but quite possibly this will be reported in a later paper).

Reference: 

[3237] Weber, M. T., Rubin L. H., & Maki P. M.
(2013).  Cognition in perimenopause.
Menopause: The Journal of The North American Menopause Society.

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Large drop in IQ in those who smoked marijuana regularly as teens

September, 2012

Persistent marijuana use beginning before age 18 (but not after) is associated with a significant drop in IQ in a large, long-running study.

A large long-running New Zealand study has found that people who started using cannabis in adolescence and continued to use it for years afterward showed a significant decline in IQ from age 13 to 38. This was true even in those who hadn’t smoked marijuana for some years.

The study has followed a group of 1,037 children born in 1972-73. At age 38, 96% of the 1004 living study members participated in the latest assessment. Around 5% were regularly smoking marijuana more than once a week before age 18 (cannabis use was ascertained in interviews at ages 18, 21, 26, 32, and 38 years, and this group was not more or less likely to have dropped out of the study).

This group showed an average decline in IQ of 8 points on cognitive tests at age 38 compared to scores at age 13. Such a decline was not found in those who began using cannabis after the age of 18. In comparison, those who had never used cannabis showed a slight increase in IQ. The effect was dose-dependent, with those diagnosed as cannabis dependent on three or more occasions showing the greatest decline.

While executive function and processing speed appeared to be the most seriously affected areas, impairment was seen across most cognitive domains and did not appear to be statistically significantly different across them.

The size of the effect is shown by a further measure: informants (nominated by participants as knowing them well) also reported significantly more attention and memory problems among those with persistent cannabis dependence. (Note that a decline of 8 IQ points in a group whose mean is 100 brings it down to 92.)

The researchers ruled out recent cannabis use, persistent dependence on other drugs (tobacco, alcohol, hard drugs), and schizophrenia, as alternative explanations for the effect. The effect also remained after years of education were taken into account.

The finding supports the view that the adolescent brain is vulnerable to the effects of marijuana, and that these effects are long-lasting and significant.

Some numbers for those interested: Of the 874 participants included in the analysis (those who had missed at least 3 interviews in the 25 years were excluded), 242 (28%) never used cannabis, 479 (55%) used it but were never diagnosed as cannabis-dependent, and 153 (17%) were diagnosed on at least one of the interviews as cannabis-dependent. Of these, 80 had been so diagnosed on only one occasion, 35 on two occasions, and 38 on three or more occasions. I note that the proportion of males was significantly higher in the cannabis-dependent groups (39% in never used; 49% in used but never diagnosed; 70%, 63%, 82% respectively for the cannabis-dependent).

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Development of mathematics in children — a round-up of recent news

August, 2012
  • Fifth grade students' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement.
  • School entrants’ spatial skills predicted later number sense and estimation skills.
  • Gender differences in math performance may rest in part on differences in retrieval practice.
  • ‘Math’ training for infants may be futile, given new findings that they’re unable to integrate two mechanisms for number estimation.

Grasp of fractions and long division predicts later math success

One possible approach to improving mathematics achievement comes from a recent study finding that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement, even after statistically controlling for parents' education and income and for the children's own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension, working memory, and knowledge of whole number addition, subtraction and multiplication.

The study compared two nationally representative data sets, one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10-12 year-olds and again in 2002 as 15-17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds.

You can watch a short video of Siegler discussing the study and its implications at http://youtu.be/7YSj0mmjwBM.

Spatial skills improve children’s number sense

More support for the idea that honing spatial skills leads to better mathematical ability comes from a new children’s study.

The study found that first- and second-graders with the strongest spatial skills at the beginning of the school year showed the most improvement in their number line sense over the course of the year. Similarly, in a second experiment, not only were those children with better spatial skills at 5 ½ better on a number-line test at age 6, but this number line knowledge predicted performance on a math estimation task at age 8.

Hasty answers may make boys better at math

A study following 311 children from first to sixth grade has revealed gender differences in their approach to math problems. The study used single-digit addition problems, and focused on the strategy of directly retrieving the answer from long-term memory.

Accurate retrieval in first grade was associated with working memory capacity and intelligence, and predicted a preference for direct retrieval in second grade. However, at later grades the relation reversed, such that preference in one grade predicted accuracy and speed in the next grade.

Unlike girls, boys consistently preferred to use direct retrieval, favoring speed over accuracy. In the first and second grades, this was seen in boys giving more answers in total, and more wrong answers. Girls, on the other hand, were right more often, but responded less often and more slowly. By sixth grade, however, the boys’ practice was paying off, and they were both answering more problems and getting more correct.

In other words, while ability was a factor in early skilled retrieval, the feedback loop of practice and skill leads to practice eventually being more important than ability — and the relative degrees of practice may underlie some of the gender differences in math performance.

The findings also add weight to the view being increasingly expressed, that mistakes are valuable and educational approaches that try to avoid mistakes (e.g., errorless learning) should be dropped.

Infants can’t compare big and small groups

Our brains process large and small numbers of objects using two different mechanisms, seen in the ability to estimate numbers of items at a glance and the ability to visually track small sets of objects. A new study indicates that at age one, infants can’t yet integrate those two processes. Accordingly, while they can choose the larger of two sets of items when both sets are larger or smaller than four, they can’t distinguish between a large (above four) and small (below four) set.

In the study, infants consistently chose two food items over one and eight items over four, but chose randomly when asked to compare two versus four and two versus eight.

The researchers suggest that educational programs that claim to give children an advantage by teaching them arithmetic at an early age are unlikely to be effective for this reason.

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Alzheimer's risk gene disrupts brain function in older women, but not men

August, 2012

A new study indicates that carrying the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’ may be a significant risk factor for women only.

While the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’ is relatively common — the ApoE4 mutation is present in around 15% of the population — having two copies of the mutation is, thankfully, much rarer, at around 2%. Having two copies is of course a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, and it has been thought that having a single copy is also a significant (though lesser) risk factor. Certainly there is quite a lot of evidence linking ApoE4 carriers to various markers of cognitive impairment.

And yet, the evidence has not been entirely consistent. I have been puzzled by this myself, and now a new finding suggests a reason. It appears there are gender differences in responses to this gene variant.

The study involved 131 healthy older adults (median age 70), whose brains were scanned. The scans revealed that in older women with the E4 variant, brain activity showed the loss of synchronization that is typically seen in Alzheimer’s patients, with the precuneus (a major hub in the default mode network) out of sync with other brain regions. This was not observed in male carriers.

The finding was confirmed by a separate set of data, taken from the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative database. Cerebrospinal fluid from 91 older adults (average age 75) revealed that female carriers had substantially higher levels of tau protein (a key Alzheimer’s biomarker) than male carriers or non-carriers.

It’s worth emphasizing that the participants in the first study were all cognitively normal — the loss of synchronization was starting to happen before visible Alzheimer’s symptoms appeared.

The findings suggest that men have less to worry about than women, as far as the presence of this gene is concerned. The study may also explain why more women than men get the disease (3 women to 2 men); it is not (although of course this is a factor) simply a consequence of women tending to live longer.

Whether or not these gender differences extend to carriers of two copies of the gene is another story.

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Gender differences in effects of anxiety on performance

July, 2012

Two studies indicate that, while anxiety is present in both sexes, it only impairs performance in females.

A British study looking at possible gender differences in the effects of math anxiety involved 433 secondary school children (11-16 years old) completing customized (year appropriate) mental mathematics tests as well as questionnaires designed to assess math anxiety and (separately) test anxiety. These sources of anxiety are often confounded in research studies (and in real life!), and while they are indeed related, reported correlations are moderate, ranging from .30 to .50.

Previous research has been inconsistent as regards gender differences in math anxiety. While many studies have found significantly greater levels of math anxiety in females, many studies have found no difference, and some have even found higher levels in males. These inconsistencies may stem from differences in how math anxiety is defined or measured.

The present study looked at a rather more subtle question: does the connection between math anxiety and math performance differ by gender? Again, previous research has produced inconsistent findings.

Findings in this study were very clear: while there was no difference between boys and girls in math performance, there were marked differences in both math and test anxiety. Girls showed significantly greater levels of both. Both boys and girls showed a positive correlation between math anxiety and test anxiety, and a negative correlation between math anxiety and math performance, and test anxiety and performance. However, these relationships between anxiety and performance were stronger for girls than boys, with the correlation between test anxiety and performance being only marginally significant for boys (p<0.07), and the correlation between math anxiety and performance disappearing once test anxiety was controlled for.

In other words, greater math anxiety was linked to poorer math performance, but it was significant only for girls. Moreover, anxiety experienced by boys may simply reflect test anxiety, rather than specific math anxiety.

It is worth emphasizing that there was no gender difference in performance — that is, despite laboring under the burden of greater levels of anxiety, the girls did just as well as boys. This suggests that girls might do better than boys if they were free of anxiety. It is possible, however, that levels of anxiety didn’t actually differ between boys and girls — that the apparent difference stems from girls feeling more free to express their anxiety.

However, the finding that anxiety is greater in girls than boys is in line with evidence that anxiety (and worry in particular) is twice as prevalent in women as men, and more support for the idea that the girls are under-performing because of their anxiety comes from another recent study.

In this study, 149 college students performed a relatively simple task while their brain activity was measured. Specifically, they had to identify the middle letter in a series of five-letter groups. Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four ("FFFFF") while sometimes it was different ("EEFEE"). Afterward the students completed questionnaires about their anxiety and how much they worry (Penn State Worry Questionnaire and the Anxious Arousal subscale of the Mood and Anxiety Symptom Questionnaire).

Anxiety scores were significantly negatively correlated with accuracy on the task; worry scores were unrelated to performance.

Only girls who identified themselves as particularly anxious or big worriers recorded high brain activity when they made mistakes during the task (reflecting greater performance-monitoring). Although these women performed about the same as others on simple portions of the task, their brains had to work harder at it. Then, as the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task.

Greater performance monitoring was not evident among anxious men.

[A reminder: these are group differences, and don't mean that all men or all women react in these ways.]

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How cognitive reserve helps protect seniors from cognitive decline

May, 2012
  • Greater cognitive activity doesn’t appear to prevent Alzheimer’s brain damage, but is associated with more neurons in the prefrontal lobe, as well as other gender-specific benefits.

Data from the very large and long-running Cognitive Function and Ageing Study, a U.K. study involving 13,004 older adults (65+), from which 329 brains are now available for analysis, has found that cognitive lifestyle score (CLS) had no effect on Alzheimer’s pathology. Characteristics typical of Alzheimer’s, such as plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and hippocampal atrophy, were similar in all CLS groups.

However, while cognitive lifestyle may have no effect on the development of Alzheimer's pathology, that is not to say it has no effect on the brain. In men, an active cognitive lifestyle was associated with less microvascular disease. In particular, the high CLS group showed an 80% relative reduction in deep white matter lesions. These associations remained after taking into account cardiovascular risk factors and APOE status.

This association was not found in women. However, women in the high CLS group tended to have greater brain weight.

In both genders, high CLS was associated with greater neuronal density and cortical thickness in Brodmann area 9 in the prefrontal lobe (but not, interestingly, in the hippocampus).

Cognitive lifestyle score is produced from years of education, occupational complexity coded according to social class and socioeconomic grouping, and social engagement based on frequency of contact with relatives, neighbors, and social events.

The findings provide more support for the ‘cognitive reserve’ theory, and shed some light on the mechanism, which appears to be rather different than we imagined. It may be that the changes in the prefrontal lobe (that we expected to see in the hippocampus) are a sign that greater cognitive activity helps you develop compensatory networks, rather than building up established ones. This would be consistent with research suggesting that older adults who maintain their cognitive fitness do so by developing new strategies that involve different regions, compensating for failing regions.

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Menopause ‘brain fog’ a product of poor sleep and depression?

May, 2012

A smallish study of women approaching and in menopause found that some experienced poorer working memory and attention, and these were more likely to have poorer sleep, depression, and anxiety.

A study involving 75 perimenopausal women aged 40 to 60 has found that those with memory complaints tended to show impairments in working memory and attention. Complaints were not, however, associated with verbal learning or memory.

Complaints were also associated with depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, and sleep disturbance. But they weren’t linked to hormone levels (although estrogen is an important hormone for learning and memory).

What this suggests to me is that a primary cause of these cognitive impairments may be poor sleep, and anxiety/depression. A few years ago, I reported on a study that found that, although women’s reports of how many hot flashes they had didn’t correlate with memory impairment, an objective measure of the number of flashes they experienced during sleep did. Sleep, as I know from personal experience, is of sufficient importance that my rule-of-thumb is: don’t bother looking for any other causes of attention and memory deficits until you have sorted out your sleep!

Having said that, depressive symptoms showed greater relationship to memory complaints than sleep disturbance.

It’s no big surprise to hear that it is working memory in particular that is affected, because what many women at this time of life complain of is ‘brain fog’ — the feeling that your brain is full of cotton-wool. This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn new information, or remember old information. But it does mean that these tasks will be impeded to the extent that you need to hold on to too many bits of information. So mental arithmetic might be more difficult, or understanding complex sentences, or coping with unexpected disruptions to your routine, or concentrating on a task for a long time.

These sorts of problems are typical of those produced by on-going sleep deprivation, stress, and depression.

One caveat to the findings is that the study participants tended to be of above-average intelligence and education. This would protect them to a certain extent from cognitive decline — those with less cognitive reserve might display wider impairment. Other studies have found verbal memory, and processing speed, impaired during menopause.

Note, too, that a long-running, large population study has found no evidence for a decline in working memory, or processing speed, in women as they pass through perimenopause and menopause.

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Music and sports training help spatial skills differently for men and women

March, 2012

While sports training benefits the spatial skills of both men and women, music training closes the gender gap by only helping women.

I talked recently about how the well-established difference in spatial ability between men and women apparently has a lot to do with confidence. I also mentioned in passing that previous research has shown that training can close the gender gap. A recent study suggests that this training may not have to be specific to spatial skills.

In the German study, 120 students were given a processing speed test and a standard mental rotation test. The students were evenly divided into three groups: musicians, athletes, and education students who didn’t participate in either sports or music.

While the expected gender gap was found among the education students, the gap was smaller among the sports students, and non-existent in the music students.

Among the education students, men got twice as many rotation problems correct as women. Among the sports students, both men and women did better than their peers in education, but since they were both about equally advantaged, a gender gap was still maintained. However, among the musicians, it was only women who benefited, bringing them up to the level of the men.

Thus, for males, athletes did best on mental rotation; for females, musicians did best.

Although it may be that those who went into music or sports had relevant “natural abilities”, the amount of training in sports/music did have a significant effect. Indeed, analysis found that the advantage of sports and music students disappeared when hours of practice and years of practicing were included.

Interestingly, too, there was an effect of processing speed. Although overall the three groups didn’t differ in processing speed, male musicians had a lower processing speed than female musicians, or male athletes (neither of which groups were significantly different from each other).

It is intriguing that music training should only benefit females’ spatial abilities. However, I’m reminded that in research showing how a few hours of video game training can help females close the gender gap, females benefited from the training far more than men. The obvious conclusion is that the males already had sufficient experience, and a few more hours were neither here nor there. Perhaps the question should rather be: why does sports practice benefit males’ spatial skills? A question that seems to point to the benefits for processing speed, but then we have to ask why sports didn’t have the same effect on women. One possible answer here is that the women had engaged in sports for a significantly shorter time (an average of 10.6 years vs 17.55), meaning that the males tended to begin their sports training at a much younger age. There was no such difference among the musicians.

(For more on spatial memory, see the aggregated news reports)

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Pietsch, S., & Jansen, P. (2012). Different mental rotation performance in students of music, sport and education. Learning and Individual Differences, 22(1), 159-163. Elsevier Inc. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2011.11.012

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Group settings hurt expressions of intelligence, especially in women

March, 2012

Comparing performance on an IQ test when it is given under normal conditions and when it is given in a group situation reveals that IQ drops in a group setting, and for some (mostly women) it drops dramatically.

This is another demonstration of stereotype threat, which is also a nice demonstration of the contextual nature of intelligence. The study involved 70 volunteers (average age 25; range 18-49), who were put in groups of 5. Participants were given a baseline IQ test, on which they were given no feedback. The group then participated in a group IQ test, in which 92 multi-choice questions were presented on a monitor (both individual and group tests were taken from Cattell’s culture fair intelligence test). Each question appeared to each person at the same time, for a pre-determined time. After each question, they were provided with feedback in the form of their own relative rank within the group, and the rank of one other group member. Ranking was based on performance on the last 10 questions. Two of each group had their brain activity monitored.

Here’s the remarkable thing. If you gather together individuals on the basis of similar baseline IQ, then you can watch their IQ diverge over the course of the group IQ task, with some dropping dramatically (e.g., 17 points from a mean IQ of 126). Moreover, even those little affected still dropped some (8 points from a mean IQ of 126).

Data from the 27 brain scans (one had to be omitted for technical reasons) suggest that everyone was initially hindered by the group setting, but ‘high performers’ (those who ended up scoring above the median) managed to largely recover, while ‘low performers’ (those who ended up scoring below the median) never did.

Personality tests carried out after the group task found no significant personality differences between high and low performers, but gender was a significant variable: 10/13 high performers were male, while 11/14 low performers were female (remember, there was no difference in baseline IQ — this is not a case of men being smarter!).

There were significant differences between the high and low performers in activity in the amygdala and the right lateral prefrontal cortex. Specifically, all participants had an initial increase in amygdala activation and diminished activity in the prefrontal cortex, but by the end of the task, the high-performing group showed decreased amygdala activation and increased prefrontal cortex activation, while the low performers didn’t change. This may reflect the high performers’ greater ability to reduce their anxiety. Activity in the nucleus accumbens was similar in both groups, and consistent with the idea that the students had expectations about the relative ranking they were about to receive.

It should be pointed out that the specific feedback given — the relative ranking — was not a factor. What’s important is that it was being given at all, and the high performers were those who became less anxious as time went on, regardless of their specific ranking.

There are three big lessons here. One is that social pressure significantly depresses talent (meetings make you stupid?), and this seems to be worse when individuals perceive themselves to have a lower social rank. The second is that our ability to regulate our emotions is important, and something we should put more energy into. And the third is that we’ve got to shake ourselves loose from the idea that IQ is something we can measure in isolation. Social context matters.

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