Rural people have a better sense of direction.

Lancaster University researchers have studied folks who grew up in the country, in the suburbs, and in the city by analyzing their movements in a specially designed video game, and found that those with a rural background are better at spatial navigation, while city kids did better with grids:

The study, published in Nature, involved nearly 400,000 participants from 38 countries who played the Sea Hero Quest mobile game, a citizen science venture designed for neuroscience research, created by Deutsche Telekom in partnership with Alzheimer’s Research UK, UCL, UEA and game developers Glitchers.

The study was led by researchers at UCL, University of Lyon and the University of East Anglia (UEA) and also included Professor Ruth Dalton, now Head of School of Architecture at Lancaster University, who worked on the study when she was at Northumbria University.

“It is really fascinating that the kinds of environments we spent time in, as we were growing up, can have such an effect on how we make sense of urban spaces and, ultimately, how we find our way around them, as adults,” said Professor Dalton.

For the study, people 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 researchers compared the home cities of the study participants by analysing the entropy (disorder) of the street networks, to gauge the complexity and randomness of the layouts. People whose hometowns had lower entropy – ordered grid layouts like in Chicago or New York – were worse at completing the wayfinding task. Those from cities with organic, less ordered street layouts, like Prague, performed only slightly worse than those from rural areas.

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.

The Sea Hero Quest project was designed to aid Alzheimer’s research, by shedding light on differences in spatial navigational abilities. Over 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 skill in different countries and across the lifespan.