After living in New York City for five years, there were still inevitably times that I would exit a subway station I regularly used and turn the wrong way. New research suggests that might not have been entirely because of my reliance on Google Maps or an inherent inability to navigate.
Where you grew up may have a large impact on your spatial navigation ability, according to a recent study from scientists at the Laboratoire d’Informatique en Image et Systèmes d’Information in Lyon, France, and the Institute of Behavioural Neurosciences at University College London.
City folk who feel they have a strong grasp on getting around may be in for a surprise. The study found that people who grew up in the countryside had a better sense of direction on average than those raised in cities. This was especially true for people who grew up in the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia. Those raised in Austria, France, India, and Vietnam, however, saw less of a difference between rural and city.
As might be expected, people also tend to be better at navigating places similar to the one they experienced as a child. For example, people who traversed backroads in a rural area when young are better at doing the same even in new rural areas. City kids, on the other hand, grow up to better know how to navigate cities. The study also found that people from rural areas are better at navigating great distances.
The same results can be brought down to a more specific level. People used to getting around grid cities like Chicago or New York (at least, the parts of the city that’re in a grid) more easily adapt to other cities in a grid. Cities with lots of angles like Paris led to people better navigating more complex cities.
Researchers used the video game Sea Hero Quest, which is used to study Alzheimer’s, for its study. Nearly 400,000 participants in 38 countries memorized the game map and set objectives to see how well they did.
Of course, knowing how to navigate areas similar to where you grew up isn’t the only thing that goes into a sense of direction. Always having a map in your pocket that you can rely on for immediate, up-to-date information means people don’t really have to think too much about how to get around or use public transportation.
Some might look at this research and resign themselves to a life of wandering and wrong turns. That’s ok. There’s (often) nothing wrong with living the flaneur lifestyle of getting out there without thinking twice about how you’ll get to a location when you’re visiting somewhere new.
And thankfully, those who trend toward getting lost can always just pull out Google Maps.