Navigation: Where you grew up influences your ability to navigate the world

People who grew up in cities navigate better in grid-like environments filled with straight routes, while those who grew up in more rural environments navigate better in winding routes.

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March 30, 2022


The Sea Hero Quest game interface

Glitchers LTD

People navigate best in environments similar to those in which they grew up.

Hugo Spiers of University College London and his colleagues once used a mobile video game called Sea Hero Quest to explore our sense of direction. Their previous work found that people who grew up outside cities have a better sense of direction than those who grew up in cities.

During the game, players must memorize a map before navigating a virtual world by boat to find checkpoints as quickly as possible. Researchers can then measure a person’s sense of direction by tracking their effectiveness. The game has been shown to predict our ability to orient ourselves in the real world and was originally designed to track the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, researchers have analyzed data from nearly 10,000 people aged 19 to 70 who have played all 75 levels of the game, finding that those who grew up in cities are no worse at navigating in all settings. Instead, these people come out on top when having to find their way through environments with a grid-like structure of straight routes that mirrors the geography of many cities.

People who grew up in areas outside of cities are better able to navigate environments with more undulating routes. The team reached these conclusions even after controlling for the volunteers’ age, gender, video game skills and level of education.

“When you look closer, grid-shaped cities aren’t bad for navigation skills,” Spires says. “In game levels with environments that have more grid-like layouts, these people [who grew up in cities with a similar grid-like structure] actually do slightly better than those who grew up in rural areas.

“People somehow optimize their abilities based on the environments they interact with,” says Marc Berman of the University of Chicago. He did not participate in the analysis, but thinks it is well done. “The diversity and sample size is great and the participants were unaware of what was being tested. They were just playing a game,” he says.

The team also found that the area people lived in when playing the game had no effect on their ability to navigate. “We saw that, for example, people who grew up in a rural area and then moved to a city didn’t change their ability to navigate — that was the part of growing up that mattered,” says Spires.

Spires speculates that the environment you grow up in may affect how certain neurons called grid cells, which are part of the brain’s positioning system, transmit electrical signals during a critical developmental stage. These cells and their activity pattern can then remain for life, giving people a particular browsing style.

“However, we have to take into account that we measured spatial navigation using a video game, which is not the same as navigation in the real world,” says Spires.

You can ask to play Sea Hero Quest to provide data for dementia research by emailing [email protected]

Journal reference: NatureDOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04486-7

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