Origin shapes orientation skills – wissenschaft.de

The environment in which people grow up seems to shape the development of their orientation skills, as the study shows: those who spent their childhood in more rural areas have, on average, better navigation skills than those who come from urban areas – especially those with a mesh road network. Consequently, the researchers explain that greater structural complexity appears to have a positive effect on the development of orientation skills.

As you know, how and where people live can have a big impact: numerous studies show that the cultural and geographic features of the current environment influence people’s cognitive abilities and psychological well-being. On the other hand, less research has been done into how prior circumstances affected people – the environment in which people spent their childhood and adolescence. An international research team led by Hugo Spiers of University College London has now focused on the aspect of people’s ability to move through space.

Their research results are based on an evaluation of data from a citizen science project on neuroscience based on the mobile game Sea Hero Quest. Participants’ navigation skills are required for route finding tasks: they must navigate the vehicle through various virtual environments to find the checkpoints displayed on the map. Previous research has found that real-world navigation skills are reflected in their performance in this game.

Playfully generated data

In the current study, Spiers and his colleagues assessed the performance of nearly 400,000 participants from 38 countries who played “Sea Hero Quest” or a modified form. In the case of the citizenship science project, respondents also provided various personal data – including information about where they grew up. In this way, scientists were also able to register the structural complexity of the route system in the respective home country. A scientific tool was used that gives access to the topology of the road network worldwide.

According to the researchers, the data evaluations showed that the childhood and adolescence environment of the participants influenced their performance in the game, regardless of their current place of residence. They basically showed their best results in virtual gaming environments that resembled those of their original home. Most importantly, however, people who grew up in cities have, on average, poorer navigational skills than those from rural or suburban areas. The latter could also do relatively well in game levels that had a fairly complex environment. “So we showed that growing up outside the cities seems to be good for developing navigation skills,” says Spiers.

The degree of “disorder” seems to be influencing

Further research results show that this is obviously related to the complexity of the given environment. Researchers compared the degree of “disorder” – the so-called entropy of road network systems – in the home towns of the study participants. It turned out that people whose hometowns had lower entropy, i.e. relatively ordered grid structures, were less able to solve orientation tasks. Characteristic examples of such urban structures can be found in the USA – for example in Chicago or New York. On the other hand, people who grew up in cities with an “organic” structure – with a less ordered street layout, such as Prague – fared only slightly worse than people from the countryside.

The comparison with the age factor explains the strength of the established connection. As spatial orientation skills begin to decline relatively early in adulthood, says Spiers: “We found that people who grew up in areas with an ordered road network had comparable navigational skills to people who were five years older in rural areas,” says the researcher.

The combination likely has something to do with the lasting effect of the training, the researchers say: “If you grow up in a place with a more complex road or path system, it may improve your navigation skills as you have to keep an eye on the direction relatively intensively. Because you have to turn at different angles and you also have to remember more streets and landmarks, ”says co-author Antoine Coutrot of the University of Lyon. However, according to the researchers, further research should now shed more light on how the effects develop in childhood.

Source: University College London, Article: Nature, doi: 10.1038 / s41586-022-04486-7

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