Where a person grows up as a child significantly impacts their navigation skills as an adult, according to recent research. Those who grew up in cities have a worse sense of direction compared to those who lived in rural areas. And understanding the impact of these navigational skills could shed light on diagnosing dementia.
Navigation and Memory
Researchers from France, Germany, Switzerland and the U.K. assessed the navigational skills of close to 400,000 people across 38 countries in a recent study published in Nature.
The study participants played a smartphone game known as Sea Hero Quest. Researchers asked players to memorize a map before guiding a virtual boat through various checkpoints in as short a time as possible. The scientists tracked and assessed the performance and then asked questions about where the participants grew up.
Researchers discovered rural environments tended to produce better navigators. Those in cities, on the other hand, didn’t navigate as well. People from the suburbs performed somewhere between the two groups.
However, the strength of these conclusions varied on the different countries. The correlation was strong in places such as Argentina, the U.K. and U.S., but weaker elsewhere.
“There are countries like Hungary, for example, where there’s no real difference, but on average the trend held,” says study author Hugo Spiers, professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of experimental psychology at University College London.
“I’m fascinated by how brains construct images of an entire city or landscape and then use it,” says Spiers.
Spiers and his colleagues found other trends when looking more closely at the city layout. People who grew up in cities with a straightforward grid system, such as the classic North American metropolis, were the least skilled at playing Sea Hero Quest.
Meanwhile, people who spent their childhood in more complicated cities with road systems that are harder to anticipate, such as those in Europe, have a better sense of direction. They concluded that the more a child is exposed to geographical randomness, the better they can navigate as an adult.
In the long run, Spiers hopes to use his research to help diagnose dementia. Research has shown that a reduced sense of direction characterizes diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Our sense of direction is known to decay with age. When Spiers and his colleagues plotted the performance of rural participants and urban participants by their age group, the differences were stark. An average 60-year-old woman who grew up in a city, for example, has about the same navigational skills as the average 70-year-old who grew up in the countryside. “That’s huge,” says Spiers.
The correlation between age and location is not yet clear, but Spiers says it’s probably around the time when a child or teenager first independently explores outside the home without adult supervision.
“It’s not about where you live now,” he explains. “It suggests what you did in mobility as a child has a big influence.”
A 2018 literature review investigated whether poor navigation skills could help identify dementia in a patient, which Michael Hornberger led, a professor of applied dementia research the University of East Anglia in the U.K.
Hornberger concludes, “the evidence reviewed clearly highlights the great potential of spatial navigation and orientation deficits as diagnostic measures.”
It’s difficult to apply these findings, however, because there’s such a wide range of navigational skills within the general population. For example, a navigational test may not flag someone who grew up the countryside for at risk of dementia because of varying demographics. Researchers like Spiers hope to characterize the average skills of various demographic groups – such as age, gender, or where a person grew up – to take a more personalized approach.