Science Questions

Can I improve my navigation skills?

Mon, 25th Mar 2013

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Getting Lost! Navigating the Brain


Dave Collier asked:

Can I improve my navigation skills?


Hannah -   I believe that you were involved with some work with Eleanor Maguire, looking at taxi drivers and their ability to navigate their way around really complicated, convoluted roadway systems in London for example, and how their brain might have changed as a result of the training they experienced in navigating their way through London?

Hugo -   Yes, that's right. It was fascinating when Eleanor Maguire Old style london taxidiscovered that London taxi drivers, the ones that drive the black cabs, actually have an enlarged posterior hippocampus and a shrunken anterior hippocampus as part of the job. 

So, we compared their brain structure to a normal healthy person whoís not a taxi driver.  She found all these differences.  The posterior end of the taxi drivers seemed to expand. 

And so, itís fascinating to see that longer they had driven a taxi in London, the larger their hippocampus became.  It was interesting to see it expand physically, but what is it actually used for?  We presume itís involved in spatial navigation, but weíre quite keen to tie down when. 

So, to do that, we got hold of a simulation of London which was available at that time on the Play Station II.  There's a game called the Getaway to simulate the extent of driving through London and so, weíre able to have London taxi drivers drive through and do their job on a regular basis, but in a controlled virtual setting. 

Because it was on a computer screen, we could also examine what's going on inside their brain while they're driving using functional magnetic resonance imaging. 

BooksSo, what we found doing that because the taxi drivers really used their hippocampus maximally when they're first thinking where to go when you get on a taxi and you give the taxi driver a destination.  Thatís when theyíll be using their hippocampus, but once theyíve done that and they see these themselves on neuroimaging data, backed up what they had to say, they kind of switch off.  They donít really think.  They go on to automatic pilot and they just get you there.  Other bits of the brain sort of takeover and do all sorts of fine-tuning, and so on.  But what we found, the hippocampus was really key in that initial moment of planning a route.

Hannah -   So, going back to Dave Collierís point, it may be that he could exercise his hippocampus by testing himself with new navigation and new routes?

Hugo -   Thatís right.  There is some evidence.  If Dave left his books and went off and played a video game.  In fact, went out of his office perhaps even better every day to navigate through a new bit of city or environment, itís quite possible he might expand his hippocampus as a consequence.



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