Your Navigational Abilities may be Shaped by Where You Grew Up

People perform better in situations comparable to those in which they grew up. Hugo Spiers of University College London and his colleagues previously investigated our sense of direction using a mobile video game called Sea Hero Quest. Their previous research discovered that those who grew up outside of cities have a greater sense of direction than those who grew up in cities.

A big navigation study reveals that those who grow up outside of cities are better at finding their way around than urbanites. The findings, published in Nature, suggest that learning to deal with environmental complexity as a youngster improves mental muscles for spatial skills.

Nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world played a video game called Sea Hero Quest, designed by neuroscientists and game developers as a fun way to glean data about people’s brains. Players piloted a boat in search of various targets.

Players must memorize a map before exploring a virtual globe in a boat to find checkpoints as rapidly as possible during the game. The researchers can then assess a person’s sense of direction by seeing how quickly they do so. The game has been found to predict our capacity to orient ourselves in the actual world, and it was originally created to assess the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease patients.

Age, gender, education, and even a better sense of smell have all been associated to better navigational ability. Identifying these details will provide doctors with a more accurate baseline of a person’s navigational ability.

Antoine Coutrot

People who indicated they grew up outside of cities, where they would have likely encountered more meandering roads, were better at finding the objectives than those who said they grew up in cities.

The researchers have now analyzed data from roughly 10,000 people aged 19 to 70 who played all 75 levels of the game, discovering that those who grew up in cities are not inferior at navigating in all situations. Instead, when it comes to navigating areas with a grid-like pattern of straight pathways that matches the geography of many cities, these folks come out on top.

People who were up in rural settings are better at navigating environments with more erratic paths. Even after adjusting for the participants’ age, gender, video gaming expertise, and educational level, the study came to these results.

What’s more, the difference between city dwellers and outsiders was most prominent in countries where cities tend to have simple, gridlike layouts, such as Chicago with its streets laid out at 90-degree angles. The simpler the cities, the bigger the advantage for people from more rural areas, cognitive scientist Antoine Coutrot of CNRS who is based in Lyon, France, and his colleagues report.

Where you grew up may shape your navigational skills

Scientists can’t conclude clearly that the disparities in navigation are caused by the childhood environment based on the evidence from video games. But it’s not impossible. “As a child, if you are exposed to a complicated world, you learn to navigate it and develop the necessary cognitive processes,” Coutrot adds.

Age, gender, education, and even a better sense of smell have all been associated to better navigational ability. Identifying these details will provide doctors with a more accurate baseline of a person’s navigational ability. This, in turn, may aid in detecting when these abilities deteriorate, as they do in early Alzheimer’s disease.

“People sort of optimize their abilities to the circumstances with which they engage,” says University of Chicago’s Marc Berman. He wasn’t a part of the analysis, but he thinks it’s well done. “The sample diversity and size are excellent, yet the participants had no idea what was being examined. They were just having fun,” he recalls.

The team also discovered that the location in which people lived at the time they played the game had no effect on their ability to navigate. “We saw, for example, that people who grew up in a rural location and then relocated to a city didn’t modify their navigation abilities — it was the growing up portion that was important,” Spiers explains.

Spiers hypothesizes that the environment in which you grow up may influence how specific neurons known as grid cells, which are part of the brain’s location system, transfer electrical impulses during a vital stage of development. These cells and their activity patterns may then continue for the rest of a person’s life, giving them a distinct navigation style.

“However, we must take into account the fact that we tested spatial navigation using a video game, which is not the same as real-world navigation,” Spiers explains.

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