If you've ever heard a woman tease her husband that her memory is better than his, she might be right.

A study published last month in the journal Psychological Science suggests that women are better than men at recalling certain types of information.

A team of researchers at McMaster University measured the eye movements of men and women while they looked at photos of randomly selected faces on a computer. Participants were asked to remember and later recall the names they were shown.


Jennifer Heisz is an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University. (Courtesy of McMaster University)

Jennifer Heisz, the assistant professor in the department of kinesiology who led the study, says the results confirmed her hypothesis: that women would fare better at the task.

"We discovered that women look more at new faces than men do, which allows them to create a richer and more superior memory," says Heisz.

Women, she said, have better episodic memory than men. That means they are better able to recall scenes or images from the past, including people's appearances, events from the past and scenes from movies.

While conducting the tests, Heisz and her team used a helmet fitted with cameras that follow the participants' eye movements. The device tracked where the research subjects were looking on the screen.

Focus on features

"We found that women fixated on the features far more than men, " Heisz says.

The action, she says, is subconscious. The women in the study, she says, were not aware they were zoning in on specific features.

The results shed light on why women did better on some types of memory tests.

"Traditional memory tests were only providing a score," says Heisz.

It was already known that women and men scored differently on memory tests, Heisz said, but researchers didn't know precisely why.

Cognitive scientists thought the disparity might result from differences in how men and women retrieve memories. But instead, Heisz says, the differences lie at the beginning of the process, when our brains create, or encode, our memories.

David Shore, a co-author on the paper, says that the results may help researchers find new methods of aiding people, particularly seniors, with memory problems.

"Increased scanning may...improve face memory in the general population, especially for individuals with memory impairment like older adults."