Orientation: People raised in towns are better oriented than those in the city | Science

The streets, corners, parks and paths that one travels as a child affect the ability to move through the world as an adult. This is what a study with 400,000 people from 38 countries recently published in Nature. The work indicates that those who have grown up in cities with a rectilinear layout, such as Chicago or Buenos Aires, orient themselves less well than those who have grown up in cities with more history and more convoluted streets, such as Madrid or Bucharest. But the research also shows that whichever city they come from, urbanites fare worse than those who grew up in rural or peri-urban settings.

A few years ago, the British NGO Alzheimer’s Research UK and a group of researchers devised the mobile game Sea Hero Quest. Created by developers from the video game company Glitchers with funds from the telephone company Deutsche Telekom, the user puts himself in the shoes of a sailor who must navigate the seas and rivers with the help of a series of maps, which he has to memorize. With each level, things get more complicated. More than four million people downloaded it. The scientific goal of the game was to investigate the connection between dementia and spatial orientation: which came first, Alzheimer’s or disorientation. They also wanted to see if the performance of older players could be used for early detection of the disease. Now scientists have recovered the data accumulated in this time to find out if the environment in which the participants had grown up affected their ability to orient themselves as adults.

What does Alzheimer’s have to do with knowing how to navigate? For the director of the spatial cognition group at University College London Hugo Spiers, a lot. “Getting lost or disoriented is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s dementia,” he says. In 2019, Spiers and colleagues selected 27,000 gamers from the Sea Hero Quest over 50 years of age and validated their use as a tool to detect the disorder. And that same year, the researcher at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique in France Antoine Coutrot confirmed that those who knew how to navigate in the game also did so in real life. “We ask the participants [varias decenas] come to the lab. They first played Sea Hero Quest, then we took them to a neighborhood in London they didn’t know and asked them to carry out a similar mission. We got a good correlation between in-game and real-world performance. We repeated the experiment in Paris and got the same result,” he says.

“Getting lost or disoriented is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s dementia”

Hugo Spiers, Director of the Spatial Cognition Group at University College London (UK)

With this double validation, Coutrot and Spiers looked for a relationship between in-game performance and the topography of where the players had grown up. “We collected data from more than four million [de personas], which far exceeded our expectations! Given the magnitude of this dataset, we explored it to shed light on unanswered questions in the orientation literature, such as the effect of one’s environment on spatial abilities,” says Coutrot. They needed to know where the players had grown up, if they lived in the same area where they grew up, as well as that they had advanced enough in the game, surpassing a minimum number of levels (at least 11 of the 75 that the game had). In total, 397,162 participants from 38 countries met these requirements. It was still a huge data set and that has given them a lot of play.

One of the results of his work is that the ability to navigate worsens with age. The deterioration does not start when you are old, it starts much earlier, in your thirties. But the origin mitigates the age factor. “We found that people who grew up in areas with grid streets can have navigation skills comparable to those of people five years older who live in rural areas,” says Spiers, who has spent two decades researching the connection between the brain and geographic orientation. Spiers began his career with scientist Eleanor Maguire, who earlier in the century showed that the hippocampus in the brains of London taxi drivers was larger than in the rest of the population. This portion of the brain is responsible for processing spatial information.

The researchers dug deeper into the data, finding personal factors other than age that affect performance in the game. Together with the level of education, they found that men were somewhat better oriented than women, although the difference seems to be related to the greater or lesser gender inequality in each country. This part of the research was already published in 2018. But there was one constant: the origin of the players stood out above all other factors. In general, those raised in rural areas or in the suburbs of cities spent more levels of Sea Hero Quest. “[Según avanzas, el juego] It requires you to face more changes of direction or curves in the road to reach your destination, “says Spiers.

“Growing up in a place with a more complex road layout would help navigation skills as it requires steering, being more likely to face multiple turns from different angles”

Antoine Coutrot, researcher at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique in France

But the distance between rural and urban was very different depending on the country of origin. For example, the performance of an American player raised in New York compared to that achieved by one from a small town was six times worse than that achieved by a citizen of Bucharest compared to his compatriots from rural areas. Here, the researchers used topographical data from the 10 largest cities in each of the 38 study countries to measure their degree of urban entropy, that is, the order or disorder of their streets. The pattern was repeated: in countries with cities with a more gridded street, such as Australia, Canada, Argentina or Saudi Arabia, the difference in performance between urban and rural players was greater, always in favor of the latter. And in those states with more disorderly cities, such as Spain, the Czech Republic, India or Vietnam, those raised in rural environments were still better oriented, but by a narrower margin.

“Growing up in a place with a more complex road or path layout would help navigation skills as it requires steering, being more likely to face multiple turns at different angles,” argues Coutrot, adding: “You also need remember more streets and landmarks on each drive.”

On Sea Hero Quest, the player had to navigate the sea or river, which could introduce a bias in favor of those raised in rural settings. To overcome this danger, the authors of the study redesigned the game turning it into City Hero Quest. Here, instead of a boat on the river, you had to drive a car through the streets of a city. This experiment was done with 600 participants in the United States, the country with the largest difference between rural and urban players. The results were maintained, those from the town continued to orient themselves better than those from the city.

*The authors of the study invite Spanish speakers to download the game to continue helping in dementia research. It requires an activation code that can be requested by writing to spierslab@ucl.ac.uk.

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