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Study: People from the country have better sense of direction than city dwellers

Researchers found that, on average, people raised in rural areas are better at finding their way around than those who grew up in large towns or cities.

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Lost woman in the countryside holding a map
(Photo by ESB Professional via Shutterstock)

By Stephen Beech via SWNS

People who grew up in the countryside have a better sense of direction than city dwellers, according to a new study.

Researchers found that, on average, people raised in rural areas are better at finding their way around than those who grew up in large towns or cities.

The pioneering study used a video game called Sea Hero Quest developed to study Alzheimer’s disease, and involved nearly 400,000 participants in 38 countries,

The research team, from University College London (UCL), the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Lyon in France, found that people are better at navigating great distances if they come from rural areas.

They also found that people whose home city had a grid layout, such as New York or Chicago, were slightly better at navigating similarly organized street patterns, despite having poorer performance overall, as early childhood environments influence not only navigation ability but navigation styles as well.

Lead researcher Professor Hugo Spiers, of UCL, said: “We found that growing up outside of cities appears to be good for the development of navigational abilities, and this seems to be influenced by the lack of complexity of many street networks in cities.

“In our recent research, we have found that people’s spatial navigation skills decline with age, starting in early adulthood.

"Here, we found that people who grew up in areas with gridded streets can have comparable navigation skills to people five years their senior from rural areas and in some areas the difference was even greater.”

For the study, participants played a game featuring a wayfinding task, requiring them to navigate a boat through a virtual environment to find checkpoints shown on a map.

The researchers found that where people grew up influenced their performance in the game, after controlling for confounding effects of age, gender and education levels, while their current place of residence did not affect their scores.

The team compared the home cities of the study participants by analyzing the entropy - or disorder - of the street networks, to gauge the complexity and randomness of the layouts.

To test if people from cities could more effectively navigate environments comparable to where they grew up, the researchers developed a city-themed version of Sea Hero Quest, called City Hero Quest, requiring participants to drive around city streets in a virtual environment that varied from simple grids to more winding street layouts.

People who grew up in cities with grid layouts were slightly better at navigating similar environments, although the difference was not as great as their inferior performance in Sea Hero Quest.

Co-lead author Dr. Antoine Coutrot, of the University of Lyon, said: “Growing up somewhere with a more complex layout of roads or paths might help with navigational skills as it requires keeping track of direction when you’re more likely to be making multiple turns at different angles, while you might also need to remember more streets and landmarks for each journey.”

The Sea Hero Quest project was designed to aid Alzheimer’s research, by shedding light on differences in spatial navigational abilities.

More than four million people have played the game, contributing to numerous studies across the project as a whole.

Joint senior author Professor Michael Hornberger, a dementia researcher at UEA, said: “Spatial navigation deficits are a key Alzheimer’s symptom in the early stages of the disease.

"We are seeking to use the knowledge we have gained from Sea Hero Quest to develop better disease monitoring tools, such as for diagnostics or to track drug trial outcomes.

"Establishing how good you would expect someone’s navigational to be based on characteristics such as age, education, and where they grew up, is essential to test for signs of decline.”

The scientists are continuing their research into predictors of navigational ability, including how sleep impacts navigation skills in different countries.

Dr. Susan Kohlhaas, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “Thanks to the amazing response to Sea Hero Quest, the team has now been able to collect data from over four million players equating to nearly 2,000 hours’ worth of lab-based research.

"If we’re to understand dementia it’s vital that we have participation from as many people as possible with diverse backgrounds and experiences and this study demonstrates why that’s important.

“In this study, researchers found that spatial navigation is different in those with a rural background but we cannot conclude that living in a rural area will help guard against dementia. Dementia risk is a complex mix of age, genetics and lifestyle and where we live has a number of impacts on our health.

“Further research will be needed to unravel this complex mix of risk factors, however, Sea Hero Quest is an amazing example of how mass participation in research can help scientists get us one step closer to breakthroughs.”

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