Childhood Environment Shapes Our Sense of Orientation: Cluttered Cities and Rural Environments Promote Later Navigational Skills

Lasting Footprint: Our childhood environment influences how we can orient ourselves later. The disordered structures of rural areas or historically developed cities positively promote navigational skills. Growing up in a grid city, on the other hand, reduces the sense of orientation, as shown by a game studio with nearly 400,000 people from around the world.

Whether it’s shopping, going to work or visiting a friend – thanks to our sense of direction, we can easily find most everyday destinations. Mind maps help us with this: images of known environments created by cells of special places in the brain. Together with the landmarks, this allows us to navigate, instinctively giving preference to certain routes.

But why are the navigational abilities of us humans so different? While some people seem to find their way to their destination effortlessly even in an unfamiliar environment, others quickly lose orientation. Studies suggest that some of the navigational skills are genetic and also gender-dependent. But that alone cannot explain the differences.

In the game “Sea Hero Quest” you have to navigate through an unknown island world, depending on the level by day or by night. © Antoine Coutrot

An online game as a navigation test

That’s why Antoine Coutrot of the University of Lyon and his colleagues went looking for clues about childhood. To do this, they evaluated data from 397,162 test subjects from 38 countries who had taken part in an online game aimed at early detection of Alzheimer’s. In the “Sea Hero Quest” app, participants must find their way through the labyrinth of a virtual ocean world with islands and icebergs.

Players are initially given a map with destinations to head to and then have to find their way using directional decisions and landmarks. “Performing in Sea Hero Quest has proven to be a good measure of real-world navigation skills,” explain the researchers. The results and personal background information were archived in a database for scientific evaluation with the consent of the participants.

This allowed the research team to look for factors that differentiated high-performing participants from less successful ones.

Country folks better than city kids, mostly

Evaluations revealed: How well a person can navigate as an adult strongly depends on their childhood environment. People who grew up in rural areas performed significantly better on tests than their urban counterparts. This was true for all countries and cultures. “Growing up outside the city seems conducive to developing navigational skills,” says co-author Hugo Spiers of University College London.

What is striking, however, is that urban-rural differences were not the same everywhere. The gap between people who grew up in urban areas and country children in the United States or Argentina was significantly greater than between urban and rural dwellers in Germany, Greece or Ireland. In some countries such as Romania, Austria or India, the relationship has even been reversed, as Coutrot and his colleagues found.

city ​​structures
Historic urban structures (above) have many different angles (above), which train orientation. © Coutrot et al./Nature

Order matters

But what’s behind it? More detailed analyzes revealed that the structure of the childhood environment plays a decisive role in the subsequent sense of orientation. The more disordered and diversified the spatial model of the environment, the better the subsequent navigation skills are developed. The irregular structure of the rural environment, but also the winding streets of historically grown cities, therefore have a positive effect.

“Growing up in an area with a more complex pattern of streets or paths helps with orientation because it’s harder to keep your eyes in the right direction,” explains Coutrot. The variety of angles in such a messy environment and the number of intersections proved to be decisive. The more often you have to deviate from a 90-degree angle when turning, the stronger the learning effect appears, as the analyzes showed.

On the other hand, if you grow up in the rectangular grid of streets of a US city, for example, the mental demands are lower and the brain is consequently less trained.

The messier it is, the better

This explains why not all test subjects who grew up in cities were equally successful and why there were sometimes significant differences between countries: many cities in Germany and other European countries have grown historically and are therefore tortuous as a result. . This is also the case in Asia, such as Thailand or India, as the team explains. The difference between city and countryside is therefore less, at least in terms of spatial organization.

In the United States, Canada or Argentina, on the other hand, cities were often only built in the modern era and designed on the drawing board. The structure of New York, Chicago or Buenos Aires, for example, therefore follows a rigid rectangular pattern. In these countries, therefore, children who grow up in less rigidly ordered rural environments subsequently have better navigational skills. (Nature, 2022; doi: 10.1038 / s41586-022-04486-7)

Source: CNRS, University College London

Leave a Comment