Orientation: Urban dwellers find it more difficult to get to their destination

That people are affected by their environment is nothing new. Previous studies show, for example, that living in a natural environment can have a positive effect on overall health, while confined urban areas can increase the risk of mental illness.

A research team led by French neuroscientist Antoine Coutrot has now shown that where we grow up also has an impact on our sense of direction. In the study, which was published in the journal Nature, the researchers wanted to find out how well different people can orient themselves in an unfamiliar environment. The project involved experts from University College London (UCL) and the Universities of Lyon and East Anglia.

Data collection with video game

The team used the Sea Hero Quest video game to investigate. This is a free mobile phone game in which players have to navigate a ship in a virtual environment. Coutrot explains to science.ORF.at: “First the participants are shown a map, but only briefly. Then they have to reach different waypoints with the ship independently and without the map and then find their way to their destination as quickly as possible. “. Players are also asked to voluntarily provide information on things like their place of residence or their age.

Overall, the researchers were able to collect extensive data from nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries and analyze how well they coped with the browsing activity. “Without the game, it would hardly have been possible to obtain such a large amount of data,” explains Coutrot.

A clear structure replaces the sense of direction

The result of the survey: People who grew up in the city with a grid road system performed worse in the video game than those from more rural areas. Coutrot explains: “We know from previous research that the sense of direction decreases with age. The current study shows that people from clearly structured cities performed just as much in the game as the five-year-olds in the countryside. “

The French neuroscientist explains the result as follows: “If you grow up as a child in a city with grid-lined streets, you don’t have to develop a special sense of direction.” where the destination is known, can be reached with relative ease using the structured roads.

Ed Manley, Nature

Chicago: a city with a grid road system

Countryside people, on the other hand, cannot stick to the structure of the road network – according to Coutrot, they are therefore generally more challenged to develop a pronounced sense of direction at an early stage. As a result, you can orient yourself in more complex environments later in life.

The way to navigate is “a matter of habit”

So, on average, gamers from urban regions performed worse in the video game, but at the same time they were able to do quite well in less complex environments that also followed a certain structure. Coutrot: “For us, this is proof that our environment not only has a general effect on how well we can orient ourselves, but that more importantly how we move through our environment is determined by it.” People usually find their way around the best in complex environments such as places from their childhood.

In further studies, Coutrot would like to find out what factors may still affect the sense of direction, especially in childhood. “In addition to the clearly structured road network, factors such as eye-catching buildings or other sights can also play a role,” she explains.

Above all, the result of the study is a further step towards improving diagnostic tools for diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, because disorientation is considered an early sign of these diseases. Coutrot: “In the future, treating physicians will be able to better compare the symptoms of Alzheimer’s patients with people around the world using the extensive database.”

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