Description: If you want to drive for Uber (well drive for yourself through the Uber App) the process to get started will take a couple of weeks (mostly made up of waiting for a background check to be processed). Compare that to what it takes to become a London Taxi driver. To do that you must acquire “The Knowledge” which essentially means you need to become a human GPS in relation to London, UK. How do you do that? Well you get a scooter, because it is inexpensive to operate and will get you through London traffic, and you spend two to four years driving around London committing it to memory. Your memory will be extensively tested before you will be deemed ready to drive one of those classic black London taxis. What you will also do, as part of the process, is grow your hippocampus (the area of the brain thought to be involved in memory processing) to a size significantly larger than that of most other people. Now, doesn’t that sound a bit like the old Phrenology argument that the brain is a kind of mental muscle and if we “work” function-specific parts of it they get bigger. Phrenologists believe these size increases could be read in the external bumps on one’s head and that is what Phrenologists claimed to be able to do. No, they were not really doing that, but that is a whole other story. But, after acquiring “The Knowledge” London taxi driver’s hippocampi ARE larger than they were before they started driving around London on their scooters. So, what is in that larger sized hippocampus? Is it stored knowledge (an atlas of London) or is it superior navigation skills? Think about that and then read through the article linked below that discusses research looking at this question.
Source: GPS in the Brain, Anjan Chatterjee, Brain, Behavior, and Beauty, Psychology Today.
Date: November 6, 2019
Photo Credit: “Bacon’s New Map of London Divided into Half Mile Squares and Circles” by George Washington Bacon, from Wikimedia.
So, people with superior navigation skills, who can pick up map information more quickly than others, do not have larger than average hippocampi. Research on rats suggest that a “map” actually may get stored in the hippocampus as specific nerves seem to fire when the rats are in specific locations. As well Alzheimer’s patients seem to lose the ability to navigate previously familiar environments. So, perhaps the hippocampus IS a sort of neuro-spatial muscle. Work it out, build a map, and navigate more effectively. Interesting, and in need of further study.
Questions for Discussion:
- What does the hippocampus do for us in memory tasks?
- How are navigation skills and spatial knowledge likely related in the brain?
- What line or lines of further research (looking at London taxi drivers and those wishing to BE London Taxi drivers) would help us to better understand how navigation talent and specific spatial information are managed in the brain?
References (Read Further):
O’keefe, J., & Nadel, L. (1978). The hippocampus as a cognitive map. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Woollett, K., & Maguire, E. A. (2011). Acquiring “the Knowledge” of London’s layout drives structural brain changes. Current biology, 21(24), 2109-2114. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S096098221101267X
Weisberg, S. M., Newcombe, N. S., & Chatterjee, A. (2019). Everyday taxi drivers: Do better navigators have larger hippocampi?. Cortex, 115, 280-293. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2019/01/02/431155.full.pdf
Knight, R. T. (2007). Neural networks debunk phrenology. Science, 316(5831), 1578-1579.
Friston, K. (2002). Beyond phrenology: what can neuroimaging tell us about distributed circuitry?. Annual review of neuroscience, 25(1), 221-250. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Karl_Friston/publication/11320651_Beyond_phrenology_What_can_neuroimaging_tell_us_about_distributed_circuitry/links/0deec519b56fbe1cf5000000.pdf