If You Grew Up Somewhere Rural, You Probably Have a Better Sense of Direction

Date:11 April 2022 Author: Juandre

Terrible with directions? According to a new study published last month in Nature, that might have something to do with where you grew up.

To find out how our hometowns affect spatial navigation, researchers from University College London, the University of Lyon, and the University of East Anglia analyzed the performances of 400,000 participants from 38 countries as they completed a wayfaring task in a video game. They found that people who grew up in the countryside demonstrated the best navigation skills, followed by participants who grew up in a suburban area. People whose hometowns were laid out in a grid system, like Chicago or New York, were the least successful of the bunch.

Essentially, the researchers found that the more entropy a person was exposed to as a child—in this case, the more curving roads or irregular street networks—the better they were at getting around.

“Growing up somewhere with a more complex layout of roads or paths might help with navigational skills as it requires keeping track of direction when you’re more likely to be making multiple turns at different angles,” Antoine Coutrot, a co-author on the study, says in a press release. “You might also need to remember more streets and landmarks for each journey.”

These results were achieved using Sea Hero Quest, a mobile video game that was developed to study Alzheimer’s, a disease that often impairs sufferer’s navigational skills. When it was available to the public, more than four million people played Sea Hero Quest on their phones, providing scientists with an incredible dataset to pore over. They decided to see if they could find any correlation between the environments we’re exposed to in our youth and how well we navigate as adults.

In the game, participants were asked to memorize a map and then navigate a boat through the virtual environment to find certain checkpoints they had seen on that map, such as buoys and sea creatures. After controlling for age, gender, and education levels, the researchers found that where people grew up had a significant impact on how well they did, while their current place of residence did not affect their scores.

To test if people from cities would perform better in an environment more like the one they grew up in, the researchers developed City Hero Quest, requiring participants to drive around virtual cities of varying complexity. Participants who grew up in cities performed better in this game, but not to the same degree they underperformed in Sea Hero Quest.

No matter where they grew up, participants performed best when confronted with topography that most resembled their childhood journeys; people from rural areas were best at navigating windy, unordered roads and people from gridded cities were best with grid layouts. “This provides evidence of the effect of the environment on human cognition on a global scale,” the researchers note in the study, “and highlights the importance of urban design in human cognition and brain function.”

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that across all populations, our sense of direction wanes as we age. Co-author and dementia researcher Michael Hornberger argues that studies like this can help researchers treat cognitive decline.

“Establishing how good you would expect someone’s navigational skills to be based on characteristics such as age, education, and where they grew up, is essential to test for signs of decline,” he says.

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