Growing up in a city weakens the brain’s navigational skills

Feb 06, 2020

RURAL FOLK can blame Aesop—of the moralising fables—for centuries of stories that mock them as bumpkins. The ancient Greek storyteller’s tale of the Country Mouse and the Town Mouse was only the first to emphasise their supposed simpler tastes and habits when compared with more sophisticated urbanites. So listen for the cheers from Somerset to Kansas as neuroscientists announce that, in fact, it is city living that can dull the wits—at least when it comes to finding one’s way in the world.

Growing up in a city, a vast global survey has found, has a lifelong negative impact on a person’s ability to navigate. When looking for a half-remembered restaurant in a poorly-lit side street, it seems Country Mouse would be a more useful companion.

In the new study, posted to the online repository bioRxiv, scientists led by Antoine Coutrot at Nantes University in France and Hugo Spiers at University College London describe how they used a dataset gathered from 4m players of a computer game called “Sea Hero Quest”, which tests way-finding skills by asking players to memorise a map showing the location of checkpoints and then measuring how well players can steer a boat to find them, guided only by their mental map.

The game was released in 2016 and all players have since been asked for basic information...

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