INTRODUCTION: The coding of space as near and far is not only determined by arm-reaching distance, but is also dependent on how the brain represents the extension of the body space. Recent reports suggest that the dissociation between reaching and navigational space is not limited to perception and action but also involves memory systems. It has been reported that gender differences emerged only in adverse learning conditions that required strong spatial ability.
METHODS: In this study we investigated navigational versus reaching memory in air force pilots and a control group without flight experience. We took into account temporal duration (working memory and long-term memory) and focused on working memory, which is considered critical in the gender differences literature.
RESULTS: We found no gender effects or flight hour effects in pilots but observed gender effects in working memory (but not in learning and delayed recall) in the nonpilot population (Women's mean = 5.33; SD= 0.90; Men's mean = 5.54; SD= 0.90). We also observed a difference between pilots and nonpilots in the maintenance of on-line reaching information: pilots (mean = 5.85; SD=0.76) were more efficient than nonpilots (mean = 5.21; SD=0.83) and managed this type of information similarly to that concerning navigational space. In the navigational learning phase they also showed better navigational memory (mean = 137.83; SD=5.81) than nonpilots (mean = 126.96; SD=15.81) and were significantly more proficient than the latter group.
DISCUSSION: There is no gender difference in a population of pilots in terms of navigational abilities, while it emerges in a control group without flight experience. We found also that pilots performed better than nonpilots. This study suggests that once selected, male and female pilots do not differ from each other in visuo-spatial abilities and spatial navigation.
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