Can I improve my navigation skills?

25 March 2013

Question

Can I improve my navigation skills?

Answer

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 discovered 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 who's not a taxi driver. She found all these differences. The posterior end of the taxi drivers seemed to expand. And so, it's 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 it's involved in spatial navigation, but we're 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, we're 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. So, 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. That's when they'll be using their hippocampus, but once they've done that and they see these themselves on neuroimaging data, backed up what they had to say, they kind of switch off. They don't 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 Collier's point, it may be that he could exercise his hippocampus by testing himself with new navigation and new routes?

Hugo - That's 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, it's quite possible he might expand his hippocampus as a consequence.

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