People raised in cities are worse at navigation: study

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 (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
  • Scientists say growing up outside of cities appears to be good for the development of navigational abilities.
  • The scientists looked at how almost 400 000 people from 38 countries played a mobile game designed for neuroscience research.
  • The research found that people who grew up in rural areas scored better in the game and had a better sense of direction.

People who grew up in the country have a better sense of direction and navigational skills than those raised in cities, a study said Wednesday.

To find out how childhood environment influences navigation ability, scientists looked at how almost 400 000 people from 38 countries played a mobile video game designed for neuroscience research.

Players of the "Sea Hero Quest" game had to navigate a boat to find checkpoints on a map, according to the study published in the Nature journal.

"We found 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," said lead researcher Hugo Spiers of University College London.

Co-lead author Antoine Coutrot of the University of Lyon said research had previously shown that when mice grew up in cages with paths of differing complexities, "certain cognitive capacities in their brains, including spatial navigation, were also modified".

However, humans were a little trickier to study because "we cannot lock them up in cages," he told AFP.

So the researchers used "Sea Hero Quest", which was created in 2016 to study Alzheimer's disease and has since been played by nearly four million people.

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Coutrot said people who grew up in rural areas scored better because "the countryside is a rather complex environment in that it is very unorganised, with greater distances, meaning you have to memorise your route."

However, people raised in more complex cities such as Paris and Prague did much better than those from cities with orderly grid-based street plans like Chicago, he added.

And adults can still improve their sense of direction later in life if they work at it.

Coutrot said:

It's a bit like learning another language, which will be much easier if you learned it when you were young.

The researchers also developed a new version of the game called "City Hero Quest" to test how city-dwellers fared in their natural environment.

People raised in cities did manage better in grid street plans than those who grew up in the country - but the difference was nowhere near as stark as the other way around.

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