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Scientists Reveal The Answer To Why People Who Drive And Read Maps Are Smarter

Scientists Reveal The Answer To Why People Who Drive And Read Maps Are Smarter

A scientific study has shown that navigating around a city street can enhance a person’s brain and it has also shown that the brain can change on a structural level as people learn.

The study, conducted by the University of Carnegie-Mellon, looked at 28 adults who played a driving video game. Half of the group, the control group, was asked to maneuver along 20 different routes for 45 minutes. The other group practiced maneuvering along a single route 20 times for 45 minutes.

Details of the study

The control group, by practicing 20 routes, was not able to practice enough to learn the details of all 20 routes in the time period. By contrast, the test group was able to maneuver along that route far faster. They were also able to do a better job drawing a two-dimensional picture of the route and were faster ordering a series of screenshots taken of that route.

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Now, this may seem incredibly obvious. If you practice driving alongside a single route, you will certainly get better at driving that route compared to someone who only practices that route one time out of 20. But the important part was that before and after the testing session, each participant underwent a brain scan using diffusion-weighted imagining (DWI), which measures water molecule activity in the brain.

Results of the brain scan

The brain scan found that those who practiced the one route repeatedly showed changes in the left posterior dentate gyrus. This area of the brain is part of the hippocampus, a region which controls memory and navigational ability. The hippocampus is a crucial region in understanding Alzheimer’s disease, as it is one of the first parts of the brain to be afflicted.

And these changes did not just stay in the hippocampus. The Carnegie researchers noticed that there were increases “in the synchronization of activity – or functional connectivity – between this region and other cortical areas in the network of brain regions responsible for spatial cognition.” Furthermore, this structural change could be correlated with how well the test group people performed at navigating the route.

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Implications for the rest of the brain

It had been known for years that taxi drivers, who have to navigate endless streets, have a larger hippocampus compared to others. But this study, appears to show that they develop this through their driving.

This has important implications beyond navigation. For example, the hippocampus also affects one’s memory. A recent study by Columbia University which analyzed the hippocampus in rats shows that their brain cells – and by implication, ours – are capable of tracking time and distance.

That is important due to the fact that we organize our memories through time, and that we link our sense of time with our sense of physical places. Scientists have understood that navigation and memory are linked in our brains for a long time.

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Hence, if it is possible to enhance one’s navigational ability, then perhaps this strategy could be used to improve one’s memory at the same time.

Plenty of work to be done

The Carnegie-Mellon researcher are understandably elated with what they have accomplished. As Marcel Just, the director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at the University observed, “We’re excited that these results show what re-wiring as a result of learning might refer to. We now know, at least for this type of spatial learning, which area changes its structure and how it changes its communication with the rest of the brain.”

But there remains a great deal of work to be done to see how this link between spatial learning, an enlarged hippocampus, and memory can be used. Still, perhaps taxi drivers can take some pride in knowing that their constant navigating has other positive health effects.

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Featured photo credit: Kaysha via flickr.com

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.

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        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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          Summation

          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

          Reference

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