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Posts Tagged ‘navigation’

Photos: Suzanne’s Mom.
Childhood walks in the natural world are associated with better navigation skills in age.

According to a recent New York Times article by Benjamin Mueller, whether or not a patient navigated irregular spaces in the great outdoors as a child may help with diagnosing later dementia. If an old person keeps getting lost, it may not mean Alzheimer’s. It may only mean she grew up in a gridlike city.

Mueller writes, “As a child in Chicago, Stephanie de Silva found that the city helped her get where she was going. Streets included directional names like ‘West’ or ‘North,’ and they often met at neat right angles. If all else failed, Lake Michigan could situate her.

“But when Ms. de Silva, 23, moved to London, where she now studies cognitive science, she suddenly could not navigate to a restaurant two blocks from home without a smartphone map. The streets were often crooked. Sometimes they seemed to lead nowhere. …

“Scientists in Ms. de Silva’s lab at University College London, along with colleagues in Britain and France, have now arrived at an explanation: People who grow up in predictable, gridlike cities like Chicago or New York seem to struggle to navigate as easily as those who come from more rural areas or more intricate cities.

“Those findings, published in Nature [in March], suggest that people’s childhood surroundings influence not only their health and well-being but also their ability to get around later in life. Much like language, navigation is a skill that appears to be most malleable when people’s brains are developing, the researchers concluded.

The authors hope the findings eventually lead to navigation-based tests to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

“Getting lost can sometimes occur earlier in the course of the illness than memory problems, they said. Researchers have developed virtual navigation tests for cognitive decline, but they can interpret the results only if they know what other factors influence people’s way-finding abilities.

“Among the forces shaping people’s navigation skills, the study suggested, was what kind of places they experienced as a child.

“ ‘The environment matters,’ said Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London and one of the study’s lead authors. ‘The environment we’re exposed to has a knock-on effect, into the 70s, on cognition.’ …

“In 2015, Michael Hornberger, who studies dementia at University of East Anglia in England, heard about a company that wanted to invest in dementia-related research.

“Having just attended a workshop about gaming in science, he proposed a video game that could help him figure out how people of different ages, genders and locations performed on navigation tasks. Such a game, he thought, could create benchmarks against which to assess patients who might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

“To his surprise, the company — Deutsche Telekom, a major stakeholder in T-Mobile — funded his idea. Known as ‘Sea Hero Quest,’ the smartphone game involved steering a boat to find sea creatures. …

“The scientists had hoped that the game would draw 100,000 people in Western Europe. The participants would be testing their navigation skills while also providing basic demographic details, like whether they had grown up in or outside of cities.

“Instead, over 4.3 million people joined in, generating a global database of clues about people’s ability to get around. ‘We underestimated the gaming world,’ Dr. Hornberger said. ‘It went beyond our wildest dreams.’

“For all its simplicity, the game has been shown to predict people’s ability to get around real places, including London and Paris. In recent years, the research team has used the resulting data to show that age gradually erodes people’s navigation skills. ….

“The latest study addressed what its authors described as a more vexing question: Do cities, however grid-like, have the effect of honing people’s navigational skills by offering them a plethora of options for moving around? Or do people from more rural areas, where distances between places are long and paths are winding, develop superior navigation abilities?

“To find out, the researchers studied game data from roughly 400,000 players from 38 countries. The effect was clear: People who reported growing up outside cities showed better navigation skills than those from within cities, even when the scientists adjusted for age, gender and education levels. …

“Players of varying nationalities performed differently. Urbanites from some places, like Spain, came very close to matching the navigation skills of their rural counterparts. In other nations, like the United States, people raised in cities were at a huge disadvantage.

“One explanation, the researchers suggested, was that in countries whose biggest cities were complex patchworks, like Spain, chaotic street layouts had sharpened navigation skills.”

More at the Times, here.

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And speaking of fairyland … would a map help?

You can view “Maps from Fiction” in the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center through October 25 — including a map of Fairyland, a map of Oz, and a map showing both Wild Island and the Island of Tangerina.

Mark Feeney writes at the Boston Globe, “Whether the places are real or imaginary, every map is itself a kind of fiction. Those lines and color shadings and cross-hatchings and numerals and words are as ‘real’ as the sentences in a novel or characters in a cartoon are.

“The London and southern England found in Holling C. Holling’s ‘Sherlock Holmes Mystery Map’ are as real as an order of fish and chips, but the events recorded on it aren’t. … The 100-Acre Wood of the Winnie-the-Pooh books are more familiar to some than their own backyards, in no small part thanks to the enchanting watercolors Ernest H. Shepard drew on its maps. What places are more vivid in the minds of readers than Midde-earth, Oz, Narnia, Neverland, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, or George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ lands?”

Feeney’s article also muses about a Harvard exhibition of historical maps called “Finding Our Way: An Exploration of Human Navigation.” More here.

Illustration: Ruth Chrisman Gannett
Map from the storybook
My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett.

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