People raised in the suburbs or rural areas have better sense of direction than city-dwellers

People who grew up in the countryside have a better sense of direction than city dwellers, according to a new study. Researchers report that, on average, people raised in rural areas have stronger navigational skills than those who grew up in large towns or cities.

The pioneering international study used a video game called Sea Hero Quest developed to study Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly 400,000 participants in 38 countries took part in the experiment. The research team, from University College London (UCL), the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Lyon in France, says that people are better at navigating great distances if they come from rural areas.

They also also find that people whose home city had a grid layout, such as New York or Chicago, were slightly better at navigating similarly organized street patterns, despite having poorer performance overall. Authors say that early childhood environments influence not only navigation ability, but navigation styles as well.

“We found that growing up outside of cities appears to be good for the development of navigational abilities, and this seems to be influenced by the lack of complexity of many street networks in cities,” says lead researcher Hugo Spiers, a professor in Psychology & Language Sciences at UCL, in a statement.

“In our recent research, we have found that people’s spatial navigation skills decline with age, starting in early adulthood,” he continues. “Here, we found that people who grew up in areas with gridded streets can have comparable navigation skills to people five years their senior from rural areas and in some areas the difference was even greater.”

For the study, participants played a game featuring a wayfinding task, requiring them to navigate a boat through a virtual environment to find checkpoints shown on a map.

Results show that where people grew up influenced their performance in the game. That’s even after controlling for confounding effects of age, gender and education levels. Their current place of residence did not affect their scores either.

The team compared the home cities of the study participants by analyzing the entropy – or disorder – of the street networks, to gauge the complexity and randomness of the layouts. To test if people from cities could more effectively navigate environments comparable to where they grew up, the researchers developed a city-themed version of Sea Hero Quest. Called “City Hero Quest,” it requires participants to drive around city streets in a virtual environment that varied from simple grids to more winding street layouts.

People who grew up in cities with grid layouts were slightly better at navigating similar environments, although the difference was not as great as their inferior performance in Sea Hero Quest.

“Growing up somewhere with a more complex layout of roads or paths might help with navigational skills as it requires keeping track of direction when you’re more likely to be making multiple turns at different angles, while you might also need to remember more streets and landmarks for each journey,” says co-lead author Dr. Antoine Coutrot, of the University of Lyon.

The Sea Hero Quest project was designed to aid Alzheimer’s research, by shedding light on differences in spatial navigational abilities. More than four million people have played the game, contributing to numerous studies across the project as a whole.

“Spatial navigation deficits are a key Alzheimer’s symptom in the early stages of the disease,” explains joint senior author Michael Hornberger, a dementia researcher at UEA. “We are seeking to use the knowledge we have gained from Sea Hero Quest to develop better disease monitoring tools, such as for diagnostics or to track drug trial outcomes. Establishing how good you would expect someone’s navigational to be based on characteristics such as age, education, and where they grew up, is essential to test for signs of decline.”

The scientists are continuing their research into predictors of navigational ability, including how sleep impacts navigation skill in different countries.

“In this study, researchers found that spatial navigation is different in those with a rural background but we cannot conclude that living in a rural area will help guard against dementia. Dementia risk is a complex mix of age, genetics and lifestyle and where we live has a number of impacts on our health,” adds Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “Further research will be needed to unravel this complex mix of risk factors, however, Sea Hero Quest is an amazing example of how mass participation in research can help scientists get us one step closer to breakthroughs.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Report by Stephen Beech, South West News Service

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