Sunday, January 17

Map and Maze Puzzles

This past weekend was the annual MIT Mystery Hunt, and every year I say that I'm just not going to care that much, and when the hunt actually starts, I reneg on everything I've said and go peddle to the metal. Of course, I then forget this change of mind a year later and it all happens again. The exception was the 2008 hunt, which actually sucked enough for me not to do any meaningful work for it - I can't remember working on a single puzzle from that year.

This year was not an exception to the pattern, which is unfortunate since I am in Africa and remote solving from a netbook over a crappy ADSL connection is extremely frustrating. Plus I'm unable to access most of the puzzles. In spite of this, I've done what I seem to be a satisfactory amount of work and solving. Which is why I can now divert my attention to writing this post which I have been thinking about for a little while.

In the realm of puzzles, some people are specialists. There are the crossword freaks, sudoku nerds, anagram weirdos, cryptic punks to name a few. I'm a map puzzle specialist, as it turns out, and its generally my opinion that way too few people appreciate a good map puzzle. Consider the atrocities and monstrosities I've had to put up with in previous hunts.

My predilection towards map puzzles is a curious thing. One could easily attribute such a strength to one's puzzle upbringing; the title of this post is taken from the puzzle book which is my traditional all-time favorite (it is sort of like a little hunt unto itself, made up entirely of this sort of puzzle and without any need for the internet), thus we can surmise that my library was at least partially an influence.

However, in 9.10 - Cognitive Neuroscience, we spent a class discussion gender difference in cognitive capacities, which was the first time I encountered the literature behind such stipulations. Gender differences are everywhere in the brain, but what I found intriguing were the differences in spatial ability between the sexes. I dug up an old meta-analysis (Linn and Peterson, 1985) of various spatial tests to have a look at just what the data says.

I do mean, old, too - the review is from 25 years ago and more recent analyses have been published. However, publications in purist psychology journals tend to be more resistant to the Open Access revolution, so I couldn't obtain anything more current. This is unfortunate because I don't like this paper too much - its geared towards developmentalists, not... genderists? Sexists? In particular, it provides only a couple of highly lacking tables and figures for the gender comparison data, placing unwarranted emphasis on the age data. The name of your article is "Emergence and Characterization of Sex Differences in Spatial Ability..." Come on.

So, how does one approach evaluate an individuals ability to think spatially? Traditionally, there are different tests for the tree main types of spatial ability.
I confess its not at all clear which answer is correct in this example, feels more like a language test than spatial reasoning.
Rotational analysis refers to ones ability to visualize 3D objects and rotate them around and accurately revisualize them. This is the kind of skill one would find useful in games like Homeworld or X-Wing, and probably general path-finding.

Very simply put, spatial visualization requires one take an image and alter it, usually in a fairly complex way, following multiple steps.
I don't know what the hell they're asking you to do on the right side. Folding just isn't a full explanation. I think A is the only one that's even conceivable, though.

The bottom line:

Males are significantly better at mental rotation and in spatial perception, females are slightly more able than males at age 4, but at age 5 male ability accelerates and by adulthood, males well-outperform females. In spatial visualization, tests have not revealed significant differences.

I am inclined to attribute map puzzle skill to the one's ability in spatial visualization, due to the highly complex nature of both tasks. This would imply that gender has nothing to do with the matter, which doesn't exactly jive with the stereotypes. Gender stereotypes and bad and all, though usually contain a kernel of truth somewhere within. A small array of tests as we have examined only provides so much information on the big picture of how the brain processes spatial info across the genders. Map and maze puzzles themselves come in all shapes and sizes, thus further obscuring the question.

Which is why the real moral of this post is that one should not too earnestly mix sleep deprived marathon puzzling orgies with stuffy science literature.

Now that the males have a step up at least in the majority of spatial cognition, I'll have to eventually write a counterpoint to level the playing field with the females. Perhaps I'll write about that infuriating female aptitude for multitasking, which is very real. Be afraid.

1. . Marcia C. Linn, Anne C. Petersen. Child Development, Vol. 56, No. 6 (Dec., 1985), pp. 1479-1498.


  1. Intriguing, Drew. I've always (always being since I started college) been interested in the cognitive differences in males and females. Or, more importantly for my line of work, boys and girls. I'm an anagram and word puzzle freak myself, I wonder if that follows the stereotype?

  2. Hmm, that I would have to investigate further, and I have a feeling it will be more in contention. The great EO Wilson believed that the verbal skills of females were significantly better than those in males, so that alone could account for it.

    You should see lots more gender difference talk here, since I happen to find it fascinating/important AND its controversial, so how could I say no?