Human Navigation Skills Vary Depending on Where People Grew Up

There are moments when people tend to think of how they learned a particular skill — it was not there before, but it naturally showed up. In this case, the subject of the matter is the navigation skill of a person. No one directly taught anyone how to navigate an unfamiliar place — maybe it was innate survival instinct or environmental influence. How do we learn this skill? What makes us good at it?

Photo: Pxfuel

New research shows the environment a person grew up in further enhances their cognitive skills when it comes to navigating an unfamiliar place. Based on a study, “Environments play an important role in the emergence and flourishing of cognitive abilities, both the shared and nonshared environments of the prenatal period, infancy, and childhood, and the correlated and evoked environments that become increasingly nonshared in adolescence and adulthood.”

A team composed of researchers and developers from Deutsche Telekom, alongside GLITCHERS, UCL, UEA, and Alzheimer’s Research UK, created a game to observe the spatial navigation skills of a user. The game was developed to determine how a person with Alzheimer’s loses this skill over time.

Photo: Pixabay/sabinevanerp

Loss of spatial navigation skills is one of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and scientists have found a way to collect more data about this matter. Through a game called Sea Hero Quest, researchers quickly gathered data — which would have taken 176 centuries to acquire if conducted manually.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/C Ford

Through the multi-awarded mobile game, researcher Hugo Spiers and his colleagues from University College London found out how navigational skills develop in humans. The environment humans grew up in has contributed to harnessing cognitive ability. The data they collected led them to discover that people who grew up in rural areas can have better spatial navigational skills.

According to an article from New Scientist, “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 do this. The game has been shown to predict our ability to orientate ourselves in the real world and was originally designed to track the loss of this skill in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Photo: Pxfuel

Sea Hero Quest contributed data from over 10,000 people — ages 19 to 70. With the number of data gathered, it was then proven that people who grew up in rural areas are not better at navigating than those who grew up in the city. It was just that each environment nurtured their navigational skill differently. People can navigate an unfamiliar place if the area has a similar structure to the environment they grew up in.

People who spend their lives in rural areas can easily navigate a place with an unorganized route. In contrast, a person living in an urban area navigates well with places that have grid-like structures similar to a city. Furthermore, the change in the environment did not affect the spatial navigational skills, and the person from the countryside could retain the skill after moving to the city.

Photo: Pixabay/pasja1000

Spiers stated, “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.”

Photo: Pixabay/bogitw

The environment people grew up in contributes to how particular neurons called grid cells impart electrical signals in the vital stage of skill enhancement. The grid cells build a pattern that a person will use until old age, and it includes the navigational skill acquired as a person continues to develop. Therefore, a change in environment is not a variable in losing the skill.

If you would like to participate in dementia research, you can email spierslab@ucl.ac.uk to send a request to play Sea Hero Quest.

Written by Ergil Ermeno

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