Where you grew up can shape your navigation skills

Score one for the country mouse.

People who grow up outside cities are better at navigating their way than city dwellers, according to a large navigation study. The results, described online March 30 in Naturesuggests that learning to manage the complexity of the environment as a child strengthens mental muscles for spatial skills.

Nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world have played a video game called Sea Hero Quest, designed by neuroscientists and game developers as a fun way to glean data about people’s brains. Players piloted a boat in search of various targets.

On average, people who said they grew up outside cities, where they would likely have encountered many winding paths, did better at finding targets than people who grew up in cities.

Additionally, the difference between city-dwellers and outsiders was greater in countries where cities tend to have simple, grid-like layouts, such as Chicago with its streets arranged at 90-degree angles. The simpler the cities, the greater the benefit for people in more rural areas, report cognitive scientist Antoine Coutrot of the CNRS based in Lyon, France, and his colleagues.

Yet, from this video game data, scientists can’t say with certainty that the childhood environment is driving the differences in navigation. But it is plausible. “As a child, if you are exposed to a complex environment, you learn to find your way and you develop the right cognitive processes to do so,” says Coutrot.

Other demographics have been linked to browsing performance, including age, gender, education, and even a superior sense of smell (SN: 10/16/18). Understanding these details will give doctors a more accurate baseline of a person’s navigational abilities. That, in turn, could help reveal when those skills slip, as they do in early Alzheimer’s disease, for example.

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