People who drove by themselves before they were 18 years old have better navigational skills than those who did so at an older age.
A mobile game called Sea Hero Quest has helped scientists to explore our sense of direction. For example, one study found that people who grew up outside cities have better navigation skills than those who spent their childhood in more urban environments.
In the game, players must memorise a map before navigating a virtual world via boat to find various checkpoints as quickly as possible. Researchers can gauge a player’s sense of direction by tracking how efficiently they do this.
In the latest study, Emre Yavuz at University College London and his colleagues recruited 694 people, who all lived in the US and can drive, to play Sea Hero Quest. They asked the participants, aged between 18 and 52, when they started to learn to drive, when they first drove solo and how many hours they drive per week.
The 560 participants who drove by themselves before they turned 18 were 5 per cent better at navigating the game than those who first drove solo at an older age. A statistical analysis suggests this difference wasn’t a chance finding.
People who drive solo at a young age may spend more time exploring new places over a wider geographical range, which could enable them to better hone their navigation skills, says Yavuz.
It is unclear why the age that the participants learned to drive or how many hours they currently spend driving had no impact on their navigational abilities, he says.
The results also may not apply to people outside the US. “Those in the US may be more dependent on a vehicle due to larger distances between towns and limited transport networks within these towns,” says Yavuz.
“This is another key indication that our navigational ability is shaped not just by our environment, but our interactions with our environment, and that these interactions might be critical at particular stages of development,” says Aidan Horner at the University of York, UK.
“Whether their main findings would hold in less car-centric countries, where younger adults might have a wider range of options to explore and navigate their local environment, is not currently clear.”