Your navigation skills are strongly linked to your past

(ORDO NEWS) — Scientists are increasingly unraveling how our environment shapes not only our mental health, but also our cognitive abilities. A new study has found a surprising connection between where we grew up and our navigational skills.

An international team led by researchers from CNRS in France and University College London found that people navigate better in environments that are topologically similar to where they grew up.

In addition, people who grew up in gridded cities are less able to navigate in less organized environments than people who grew up in randomly laid out cities, and people from other cities are better at navigating large spaces than people from inland areas.

“We found that, on average, people who reported growing up in cities had worse navigation skills than those who grew up outside of cities, even after adjusting for age, gender, and educational level,” the authors say.

The researchers collected data on 397,162 people from 38 countries who played the video game Sea Hero Quest (SHQ), a game that involves navigating a boat in search of marine life.

This particular task was chosen because the results of the SHQ game have been shown to predict the ability to navigate in the real world, and the researchers had access to a large amount of data.

Players in SHQ are initially given a map with a start location and several checkpoints that they must find in a specific order. The researchers only used data from players who completed at least eleven levels of the game to get a reliable measure of spatial navigation ability.

To explore differences in spatial navigation ability, the researchers developed a metric that measures the complexity of a city’s layout.

They calculated the street network entropy (SNE) of the largest cities in the 38 countries from which the participant data was obtained. Grid-like cities (such as Chicago) have a small SNE, while more organically sprawling cities (such as Prague) have a higher SNE.

“We found that growing up in cities with low SNE led to better performance at the levels of video games with a regular layout, while growing up outside of cities or in cities with higher SNE led to better performance at the more entropic levels of video games,” they say. the authors.

“This confirms the influence of the environment on human cognition on a global scale and highlights the importance of urban design for human cognition and brain function,” they add.

Most of the countries included in the study had similar SNEs, indicative of a typical organic street structure in old urban centers (eg France, Romania, Spain, Thailand, India). However, in some countries the SNE is noticeably smaller, which corresponds to the orthogonal grid which is a very common urban street layout (eg USA, Argentina).

The findings are also consistent with previous studies that have shown an association between exploring a complex environment and a positive effect on the growth of new neurons in the rodent hippocampus, as well as studies that link increased hippocampal activity and volume to complex spatial navigation in humans.

At first glance, it appears that people raised in more complex environments will have better navigational abilities, but the authors note that many mechanisms are likely involved in the development of navigational skills.

Usually we try to minimize the number of streets and turns when moving. Navigating irregularly laid streets is likely to require more careful tracking of the direction to the destination due to the greater variety of street corners, the use of spatial or prospective memory to remember street names and upcoming turns.

The constant need to perform these cognitive tasks likely boosts the capacity of the neural systems that underlie orientation, prospective memory and planning, the researchers say.

“It appears that having to account for turns that deviate from 90 degrees and navigate more streets and blocks is the key to developing navigational skills,” they write.

“These results support the idea that people develop navigation strategies according to the type of environment they are in that become suboptimal in other conditions.”


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