Navigation: Where you grew up influences how well you navigate the world

People who grew up in cities are better at navigating grid-like environments full of straight routes, while those who grew up in more rural settings are best at navigating routes that meander


30 March 2022

The Sea Hero Quest game interface

Glitchers LTD

People are better at navigating environments that are similar to the area in which they grew up.

Hugo Spiers at University College London in the UK and his colleagues have previously used a mobile video game Sea Hero Quest to explore volunteers’ sense of direction. Their earlier work found that people who grew up outside cities have a better sense of direction than those who spent their childhood in cities.

During the game, players must memorise a map before navigating a virtual world in a boat to find checkpoints as quickly as possible. The researchers can then measure a person’s sense of direction by tracking how efficiently they reached the posts. The game has been shown to predict people’s ability to orientate themselves in the real-world and was originally designed to track the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease.

Now the researchers have analysed data from nearly 10,000 people aged 19 to 70 who played all 75 levels of the game to show that people who grew up in cities are not entirely worse at navigation. Instead, these people are better at finding their way around environments with a grid-like structure of straight routes that reflects the geography of many cities. People who grew up in areas outside cities are better at navigating around environments with more wiggly routes. The team reached these conclusions even after controlling for the age, sex, video gaming skill and educational level of volunteers.

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

“People sort of optimise their abilities to the environments that they interact with,” says Marc Berman at the University of Chicago. He wasn’t involved in the analysis but thinks it is well done. “The sample size diversity and size are terrific and the participants were not aware of what was being tested. They were just playing a game,” he says.

The team also found that the area people lived in at the time of 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 navigation ability – it was the growing up part that mattered,” says Spiers.

Spiers speculates that the environment you grow up in may affect the way certain neurons called grid cells in the brain transmit electrical signals during a critical stage of development. These cells and their pattern of activity may then remain throughout the lifespan, giving people a particular navigation style.

“However, we have to account for the fact that we measured spatial navigation using a video game which isn’t the same as real-world navigation,” says Spiers.

You can request to play the game to provide data for dementia research by emailing [email protected]

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04486-7

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