Gay men can recall familiar faces faster and more accurately than their heterosexual counterparts because, like women, they use both sides of their brains, according to a new study by York University researchers. The study published in the journal, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition and led by Psychology Professor Jennifer Steeves in the Faculty of Health, has attracted international coverage.
Here's an excerpt from TIME.com on June 24. The story's had 86 tweets and 335 Diggs:
It's long been an accepted truth among married couples that it's the wife who must usually steer the pair through social gatherings, reminding her husband if he's meeting someone for the first, second or 15th time – and science backs up that observation.
In lab settings, women routinely outperform men in facial recognition skills, both in terms of speed and reliability. Now, research from York University in Toronto has added a wrinkle to the existing wisdom. It's not just women whose brains are so nimble, the investigators have determined, it's gay men, too.
In the Canadian study, Jennifer Steeves, a psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, recruited a sample group composed of homosexual men, heterosexual men and heterosexual women. Significantly, she also took care to include both left- and right-handed people among the subjects. All of the volunteers were shown pictures of 10 faces and given time to try to memorize them. Those 10 faces were mixed with similarly edited images of 50 other people, and flashed on a screen for just milliseconds apiece. The subjects' job was to press a key when they saw a face they'd seen before.
The results confirmed what the investigators suspected they'd find: the gay men and the straight women scored about equally well in the test, and both did better than the straight men. What's more, within the straight male group, lefties outperformed righties. The explanation is rooted mostly in the genes.
All people are born with genetic coding that regulates body symmetry and asymmetry. This includes not just handedness, but which way the whorl in the hair at the crown of the head grows, or which hemisphere of the brain will be dominant for processing language. "Characteristics like this are determined very, very early on," says Steeves. "A baby's handedness can sometimes even be observed in utero."
If sex and symmetry get mixed up this way, there's no reason the phenomenon should sidestep the brain, and Steeves does not think it does. Gay men, she believes, probably do so well at recognizing faces because, like women, they're putting both hemispheres to work at once. Greater crosstalk between the two halves via the corpus callosum – the cable of nerve fibres that serves as sort of a superhighway between left and right – probably contributes to this as well. That, however, is not something Steeves and her colleagues have been able to demonstrate conclusively yet, since they have not had the chance to rerun their study while simultaneously scanning the brains of their subjects with a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI). "The University just doesn't have one," she says. "But we're getting one soon and we'll be able to take that next step then."
None of this means that it will ever be possible simply to take an fMRI of a brain and tell from that alone if it belongs to a homosexual or heterosexual – and given privacy concerns and the risk of bias, Steeves wouldn't even want to try. "I would hesitate to do post-hoc analysis," she says. "There are scary things that could happen with that." What it does mean, however, is that science's understanding of the roots of sexuality, so long shrouded in misinformation, is steadily edging into the light – and there's nothing scary about that.
The Times of India Online and DailyIndia.com covered the research June 23:
A new study by York University researchers has shown that gay men can recall familiar faces faster and more accurately than their heterosexual counterparts because, like women, they use both sides of their brains.
The study examined the influence of gender, sexual orientation and whether we’re right- or left-handed on our ability to recognize faces. It found that when memorizing and discriminating between faces, homosexual men show patterns of bilaterality – the usage of both sides of the brain – similar to heterosexual women. Heterosexual men tend to favour the right hemisphere for such tasks.
Jennifer Steeves, psychology professor in York’s Faculty of Health, and her colleagues also investigated the influence of hand dominance on such tasks. They found that left-handed heterosexual participants had better face recognition abilities than left-handed homosexuals, and also outperformed right-handed heterosexuals. “Our findings are consistent with what we know about the organization and laterality of how we process faces depending on our gender, sexual orientation and handedness,” Steeves says.
The study was also covered in Metro UK June 22:
Gay men are on a par with women when it comes to never forgetting a face, according to a study. Homosexual men show patterns of bilaterality – using both sides of the brain – similar to heterosexual women.
"Our results suggest that both gay men and heterosexual women code faces bilaterally. That allows for faster retrieval of stored information," said study lead author Jennifer Steeves, at Toronto’s York University.
Stories on the research also appeared in Sun Media newspapers and Macleans.ca June 22.
Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.