For navigational smarts, avoid a grid-city childhood

We all know someone whose navigation abilities are so bad that they can get lost going to the restaurant around the corner. But new research suggests that people who grow up in grid-pattern cities are more likely to have a poor sense of direction – and the study authors also propose links between this kind of spatial awareness and amnesia.

The study shows that people who have spent their childhoods in rural areas have the highest levels of navigation skill. People who grew up in cities with a less orderly street plans also performed well in their studies.

But those from cities based around a planned grid system – think New York or Adelaide – struggled the most to avoid getting lost.

Nearly 400,000 participants from 38 different countries were given a set of wayfinding tasks on a smartphone game called Sea Hero Quest, which was designed for research into Alzheimer’s disease. Their results were compared against a range of variables, including where they grew up – which proved to be a significant factor in developing a knack for navigation.

Professor Hugo Spiers, from University College London, who led the research project, explains that “growing up outside of cities appears to be good for the development of navigational abilities, and this seems to be influenced by the lack of complexity of many street networks in cities.

“In our recent research, we have found that people’s spatial navigation skills decline with age, starting in early adulthood. Here, we found that people who grew up in areas with gridded streets can have comparable navigation skills to people five years their senior from rural areas, and in some areas the difference was even greater.”

While participants were influenced by upbringing, the results suggested that their current place of residence had minimal effect. Researchers also found that navigation skills begin declining in early adulthood. Once again, participants that grew up in more complex navigational settings had more enduring abilities in finding their way through the study’s virtual environments.

“Growing up somewhere with a more complex layout of roads or paths might help with navigational skills,” says co-lead author Dr Antoine Coutrot, from the University of Lyon, France. “It requires keeping track of direction when you’re more likely to be making multiple turns at different angles, while you might also need to remember more streets and landmarks for each journey.”

The researchers caution that there’s no conclusion that living in a rural area can ward off an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Alzheimer’s Research UK director of research Dr Susan Kohlhaas explains that there are “a complex mix” of factors that lead to the disease.

Investigating the spatial navigational skills of participants is just one way that Sea Hero Quest has been utilised by researchers: the game’s a proven valuable tool for Alzheimer’s research. Various studies have been based on the results from more than four million players from all over the world.

“Spatial navigation deficits are a key Alzheimer’s symptom in the early stages of the disease,” says joint senior author Professor Michael Hornberger, a researcher at the University of East Anglia, UK.

Researchers continue to accumulate data that will help us better understand Alzheimer’s disease.

In the meantime, an immediate practical conclusion might be that the next time you’re on a café crawl in the city, maybe let someone who grew up in the bush lead the way. Don’t leave it to someone from Adelaide.

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