Place of birth influences ability to navigate

Those born in rural regions are better at traveling around new places when compared to their city counterparts
05 April 2022

Interview with 

Hugo Spiers, UCL


Car sattelite navigator


How confident do you feel navigating new terrain? Well, where you grew up - city vs countryside - could have a significant impact on your ability to do that, according to new research published this week. Julia Ravey spoke to Hugo Spiers from UCL about these results and took her own little unguided drive. But for the participants in the experiment, virtual navigation was how they went about it…

Hugo - In this video game, you play a little boat by tapping left or right to turn the boat around and you just sail out over different waters, looking for sea monsters to photograph them. It's generated data from more than 4 million people who downloaded it and played the game. When we have this large sample of people we can ask, you can actually start asking questions that might be quite difficult to get much of a result out of a small sample. This question of 'Did you grow up in a city or a rural environment?' turned out to be an important question. What we found here was that growing up in cities was worse for your navigation skill than growing up in a rural setting.

Julia - Okay? I'm gonna try and navigate my way home from work via King's College, which is in Cambridge, one of the most iconic buildings. But I'm not using the map to actually get there. I've only lived in Cambridge for like almost 6 months. I still don't really know my way around. I have to go out of here, turn right at the roundabout, go straight on, Girton College, a beefeater travellers rest on the right, keep going straight, bed and breakfast, right turn onto Mount pleasant...

Hugo - The next key result in our discovery was that you could predict the negative impact of the cities on a population. We are able to do that using this metric, which is known as the 'street network entropy measure'. Entropy is a mathematical measure to think about how disorganised a system is. A system with low entropy is highly organised. The grid layout in Manhattan has a very low entropy, but São Paulo has an extremely high entropy. The griddiness of the cities of a country made a difference.

Julia - Okay. So I'm now on a long road. That looks like a college to me. Girton College, landmark 1. We hit it.

Hugo - If you live in a city now, that's not the important question. It's ‘did you grow up in one?’ It's particularly griddy cities that seem to affect people's navigation.

Julia - Ooh. I'm way down the road now. I missed the beefeater. I missed the bed and breakfast. But I can see something called Mount Pleasant Hall. I did have to turn onto a road called Mount Pleasant. Oh, I've completely forgotten what I'm meant to do here? That says 'no entry'. Oh no. Okay? Big field. I feel like I had to go around a big field. Oh no.

Hugo - Across most of our lifespan, on average there's about a 5 year advantage. 50 or a 5 year old woman who grew up in a rural setting she's doing as well as a 60 year old woman who grew up in a city. What are the implications of this work is that future cities being built, they may need to think about having some grid and some non-grid and exposing people to the different patterns of city layouts. One possibility is that the brain circuits that process space for us and allow us to keep oriented and know where we are, are adapting. They're changing how they operate. They're expecting information about turns that are 90 degrees in a grid-like environment. But if you go into an environment where that expectation's not met, those neurons may not operate as optimally as they used to because they're used to working with information that has certain expectations built in. They make errors and those errors then lead to navigational, poor decision making.

Julia - I'm gonna go left here. Oh, it says buses and taxis only. And there's cameras. I'm definitely not risking that. But I can see King’s College from here. I can see it across the field. I think that's probably good enough. Right? Well done to me because I did get to the college. I just can't physically get to it.


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