Saturday, September 15, 2007

Nurture, Not Nature

Want Spatial Ability? Shoot 'Em Up!

Biology is destiny. Err... not so fast there sparky.

The stitch has always been, biology is destiny. Men have better spatial awareness of general landmarks because we big men, we hunt lion, bring home food. Women are better at spotting where food is located as they gather grub, watch little-uns, tend fire.

Turns out, not so much.

It you've been paying attention to sports records, you already know women at the margins of most sports continue to come closer and closer to the men's game. So much so that the graphs all seem to cross about 20-30 years from now, in damn near every sport. In other words, the rate of increase in the women's game is faster than the rate of increase in the men's game. So much that if this keeps up, everyone's going to equal out -- at least at the world-class margin -- about 20 to 30 years from now.

Better food, better training and coaching, body mechanics, medicine and even drugs, all these play a part. But it also turns out some of what we've thought was true -- the story we've been told and told ourselves about those long days as early humans on the African savannah, which after all, "sounded right" -- may just not match up with science after all.

In other words, the science we had may have justified what we wanted to find.

The Economist

Some sex differences that look biological are really cultural

Writing in Psychological Science, a team led by Ian Spence of the University of Toronto describes a test performed on people's ability to spot unusual objects that appear in their field of vision. The test asked people to identify an “odd man out” object in a briefly displayed field of two dozen otherwise identical objects. Men had a 68% success rate. Women had a 55% success rate.

Had they left it at that, Dr Spence and his colleagues might have concluded that they had uncovered yet another evolved difference between the sexes and moved on. However, they did not leave it at that. Instead, they asked some of their volunteers to spend ten hours playing an action-packed, shoot-'em-up video game, called “Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault”. As a control, other volunteers were asked to play a decidedly non-action-packed puzzle game, called “Ballance”, for a similar time. Both sets were then asked to do the odd-man-out test again.

Among the Ballancers, there was no change in the ability to pick out the unusual. Among those who had played “Medal of Honour”, both sexes improved their performances.

The improvement in the women was greater than the improvement in the men—so much so that there was no longer a significant difference between the two. Moreover, that absence of difference was long-lived. When the volunteers were tested again after five months, both the improvement and the lack of difference between the sexes remained. Though it is too early to be sure, it looks likely that the change in spatial acuity—and the abolition of any sex difference in that acuity—induced by playing “Medal of Honour” is permanent.
And you thought playing violent computer games was useless.

Want to rapidly improve your spatial abilities? Play Halo 3 and other first person shooters.

The underlying biology matters, but we know how to train super-athletes. Next time someone tells you it's nature, not nurture...

Jump over him and kick his ass.

Hat tip Boing Boing