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Sense Of Direction Depends On Where You Grew Up

Spatial navigation skills decline with age, starting in early adulthood, but deficits are also a symptom of Alzheimer's disease.

Suburbanites and country people have an unheralded advantage over city dwellers, who show less ability in orienting themselves, according to a study.

A research team has published a new study in the journal Nature, finding that childhood influences a sense of direction into adulthood.

With participation from 400,000 participants in 38 countries, the researchers discovered that most people hailing from the countryside are better at orienting themselves than those who grew up in cities.

What they found next is that this appears to vary in terms of geography: while this correlation is very strong in Argentina, Canada, Saudi Arabia and the United States, it is much less the case in Austria, France, India and Vietnam.

The team categorized maps of major metropolitan areas in the above countries according to their layout. While cities such as Chicago and New York are more or less on a grid, Paris and similar cities are more heterogeneous and feature nearly every angle.

Above is a graphic comparison of the complexity (and entropy) of two major cities, Prague and Chicago. The circles on the right show the number of branches with given angles: almost all angles are represented in Prague, while the Chicago crossroads are almost all at right angles. (Antoine Coutrot et al., 2022/Nature)

The scientists found that growing up with a complex topography provides a better sense of direction. Childhood influences not only the ability to navigate but navigation style, as well.

To better understand the phenomenon, the team used the Sea Hero Quest, a video game that was developed to study Alzheimer’s disease. The game required participants to drive on virtual city streets in wayfinding exercises that ranged from simple grid patterns to winding street layouts.

The researchers found that participants raised in urban environments featuring streets on a grid were slightly better at navigating similar environments. If they came from the countryside, they navigated great distances better than other people.

People orient themselves better, the study found, when navigating topographies resembling those of their childhood. The study controlled for sex, age and other variables.

“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,” said lead author Antoine Coutrot.

A nursing assistant and vaccinator and a data-entry digitizer walk through a farm to get to the house of a patient awaiting a COVID-19 vaccine in a rural part of the Jerusalen municipality, southwest of Bogota, in Colombia. Researchers have found that individuals who grew up in the countryside have a better sense of direction in areas with little signposting. (Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images)

Participants from cities ordered on a grid pattern were worse at wayfinding than those from cities such as Paris and Prague that feature more organic and complex patterns. The latter were only slightly worse at wayfinding than people from the countryside.

“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,” said study co-author Hugo Spiers.

The researchers found that their work has further ramifications. “In our recent research, we have found that people’s spatial navigation skills decline with age, starting in early adulthood. 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,” Spiers said.

Deficits in spatial navigation are a symptom of the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the researchers.

Above is the Sea Hero Quest game interface. At the beginning of each level, the players must memorize the map of the area (right) and then reach the goal points in the correct order by locating themselves in the environment (left). (Glitchers LTD)

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 [navigation] to be based on characteristics such as age, education and where they grew up is essential to test for signs of decline,” said co-author Michael Hornberger.

The researchers are also examining the effect sleep patterns have on navigation throughout people’s lives in various countries. While the Sea Hero Quest has provided nearly 2,000 hours’ worth of lab-based research, the team hopes to have as much participation as possible from diverse backgrounds. So far, more than 4 million people have played Sea Hero Quest, contributing to numerous related studies.

“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,” said Susan Kohlhass of Alzheimer’s Research U.K.

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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