Gay men’s bilateral brains better at remembering faces: York U study

TORONTO, June 22, 2010 — 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, 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.

“Our results suggest that both gay men and heterosexual women code faces bilaterally. That allows for faster retrieval of stored information,” says study lead author Jennifer Steeves, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

Study participants were asked to memorize photographs of ten faces, and differentiate them from 50 others, shown to them for only milliseconds each. The images were rendered in black and white and edited to remove ears, hair and blemishes, which can serve as obvious identifying cues. Participants then had to relay which faces were new, as quickly and accurately as possible.

Steeves 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.

Hand dominance is thought to be linked with both hemispheric functioning and sexual orientation; previous studies have shown that homosexual individuals are 39 per cent more likely to be left-handed.

“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.

Anatomical studies of the corpus callosum, which facilitates communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, also indicate differences in handedness: women and left-handed men have been shown to possess larger corpus callosum and more symmetrical cortices than right-handed men.

“These anatomical differences likely contribute to the more lateralized performance results seen among right-handed and heterosexual men,” says Steeves.

The study, “Sex differences in face processing are mediated by handedness and sexual orientation,” was co-authored by York University psychology graduate student Caitlin R. Mullin, and York undergraduate psychology students Paul W. H. Brewster, and Roxana A. Dobrin.

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada’s most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as 200,000 alumni worldwide. York’s 10 Faculties and 28 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.

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13 thoughts on “Gay men’s bilateral brains better at remembering faces: York U study”

  1. They also believe that a gay mans brain is the same size as a woman’s, i wonder is this also something to do with it?

  2. I don’t know the particulars of this study. Were the numbers greatly different or slightly different between straight men and gay men? Of course, in childhood, gender atypical boys spend a lot of time with girls. It’s hard to know, if what the researchers say is true, if this facial recognition pattern is innate or learned–and it’s hard to know if the brain is organized this way by birth or in the neonate period or after much socialization with girls in gender atypical activities.For those who are convinced that uterine hormonal washes are responsible for the “gay brain” it’s been a long slog and still, it seems, there are no firm conclusions. I am not arguing against their hypotheses at all, but even if fetal or even neonatal hormonal actions are finally understood, the question will remain–what triggers such actions? The mother’s body knows she is carrying an XY and so what happens that the male fetus receives hormone baths that render him, in a manner of speaking, infertile, in that he doesn’t wish to mate with a female?

  3. “They found that left-handed heterosexual participants had better face recognition abilities than left-handed homosexuals…”
    Isn’t that at odds with the heading that gay men have better face recognition abilities that heterosexual men? Or is it only right-handed gay men who do better than right-handed heterosexual men?

  4. And this is helpful because…? And it was funded with money from the tax payers because…? Why are studies made to find out pointless “facts” that only serve to divide the population. Is that the point? To keep people focused on their own competition and domination and therefore not be too harsh on the governmental problems?

    • Women in general have a larger corpus callosum, sexual orientation does not matter. Lesbians were included in with all women.

      • Sorry, just realised there were two Jen’s! First Jen isn’t disagreeing with herself, it’s Jen2. :)

  5. So, left-handed heterosexuals are better at face recognition than left-handed homosexuals. Additionally, left-handed hetereosexuals are better than right-handed hetereosexuals. But how do left-handed homosexuals compare to right-handed hetereosexuals? And where do right-handed homosexuals fit in the ranking?

  6. “Interesting, but a pity they didn’t check oestrogen and testosterone levels.”

    Why is it a pity? This has been studied. Testosterone levels and estrogen levels are unrelated to sexual orientation. Critical period, prenatal hormonal exposure may be related to subsequent sexual orientation, but later hormonal levels have nothing to do with later sexual orientation. We already know this.

    Men don’t become gay when their testosterone levels drop or if they take estrogen. Women don’t become lesbians by taking testosterone.

    • Dr M, I doubt Harry was expressing a wish that the study would address whether sex hormone levels predicted the subjects’ orientations. I’m guessing he thought it would be of interest since we’re seeing a sex difference in face recognition ability (hypothesized here to be a result of sex differences in brain anatomy), and thus it would be cool to check whether estrogen or testosterone levels explain more or less of the performance variance than any of the other factors being tested.

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