People who grew up in cities tend to be worse navigators

By Matthew Warren

The environment in which you grew up can have a long-lasting effect on your navigational skills, according to an analysis of data from nearly 400,000 players of a mobile game.

People who spent their childhood in rural or suburban areas tended to be better at navigating in the game Sea Hero Quest than those who grew up in cities. This difference could be seen decades later, the researchers report in Nature, and was particularly striking in countries where cities are organised in a grid layout.

Antoine Coutrot from the University of Lyon and colleagues looked at data from 397,162 people from 38 countries who had played Sea Hero Quest.  This game involves navigating a boat around ocean environments, and was developed by scientists and Alzheimer’s Research UK to study human spatial navigation, one of the first skills to be affected by dementia.  

The researchers were interested in the game’s “wayfaring” levels, in which players first see a map of the environment which shows several numbered checkpoints. The map then disappears, and they have to navigate the environment to visit those checkpoints in the correct order. Performance was assessed based on the length of the route players took. Players also reported demographic information, such as age, gender, country, and whether they grew up in a city or in suburban or rural areas.

The team found that younger and more educated players tended to be better at the game, and that men tended to be better than women. But the really interesting finding related to where people were brought up: those who had spent their childhood outside of cities were better at the game than those who had grown up within cities.

These results suggest that people who grow up in more rural areas develop better navigational abilities. But, crucially, the finding wasn’t consistent across countries. For nations like the United States and Argentina, there was a clear benefit of growing up outside of cities, but this effect wasn’t as strong in countries like Austria or Indonesia.

The researchers reasoned that the layout of city streets in each country could be an important factor. In countries like the United States, major cities are usually planned out in a grid fashion, making them easy to navigate — so it would make sense that people who grew up in these cities didn’t develop the same navigational abilities as people who grew up in more complex rural environments. But in countries like Austria, cities tended to develop organically over time, and as a result have more winding roads jutting off from each other at irregular angles. Growing up in these cities may have honed people’s navigational abilities just as much as growing up in rural areas.

To test this idea, the researchers analysed city maps to calculate the overall “entropy” of the city street networks in each country — essentially how ordered versus complex they were. As the team had predicted, in countries where city street networks were more grid-like and orderly, people who grew up in rural or suburban areas tended be better at Sea Hero Quest than those who grew up in the city. But this advantage was diminished in countries with more complex city street networks.  

If you grew up in a city designed as a grid, it’s not all bad news. The team found that people from these cities had an advantage in one area: navigating levels that were themselves more grid-like.

“These results support the idea that humans develop navigation strategies that are aligned with the type of environment they are exposed to, which become suboptimal in other environments,” the authors conclude.

The study is not without limitations. In particular, players only noted their home country, and not the specific city or region they came from. This meant that the researchers had to look at a single overall measure of how orderly city street networks were in each country, and couldn’t compare the performance of people from individual cities within countries. Yet even within nations there are clearly differences in city layouts: compare the grid of Barcelona with the more complex street layout of San Sebastian, for instance, or the higgledy-piggledy lanes of Oxford with the right angles of Milton Keynes. Perhaps future work will be able to look in more fine-grained detail at the fascinating effects that urban design appears to have on our cognitive abilities.  

Entropy of city street networks linked to future spatial navigation ability

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest