News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Taxi drivers ‘have brain sat-nav’

Sid James in a London cab (BBC)

The knowledge: London cabbies are famous for knowing their way around

Scientists have uncovered evidence for an inbuilt “sat-nav” system in the brains of London taxi drivers.

They used magnetic scanners to explore the brain activity of taxi drivers as they navigated their way through a virtual simulation of London’s streets.

Different brain regions were activated as they considered route options, spotted familiar landmarks or thought about their customers.

The research was presented at this week’s BA Science Festival.

Earlier studies had shown that taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus – a region of the brain that plays an important role in navigation.

Their brains even “grow on the job” as they build up detailed information needed to find their way around London’s labyrinth of streets – information famously referred to as “The Knowledge”.

“We were keen to go beyond brain structure – and see what activity is going on inside the brains of taxi drivers while they are doing their job,” said Dr Hugo Spiers from University College London.

Taxi driver's brain

The scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to obtain “minute by minute” brain images from 20 taxi drivers as they delivered customers to destinations on “virtual jobs”.

The scientists adapted the Playstation2 game “Getaway” to bring the streets of London into the scanner.

After the scan – and without prior warning – the drivers watched a replay of their performance and reported what they had been thinking at each stage.

“We tried to peel out the common thoughts that taxi drivers tend to have as they drive through the city, and then tie them down to a particular time and place,” said Dr Spiers.

The series of scans revealed a complex choreography of brain activity as the taxi drivers responded to different scenarios.

The hippocampus was only active when the taxi drivers initially planned their route, or if they had to completely change their destination during the course of the journey.

The scientists saw activity in a different brain region when the drivers came across an unexpected situation – for example, a blocked-off junction.

Another part of the brain helped taxi drivers to track how close they were to the endpoint of their journey; like a metal detector, its activity increased when they were closer to their goal.

Changes also occurred in brain regions that are important in social behaviour.

Taxi driving is not just about navigation: “Drivers do obsess occasionally about what their customers are thinking,” said Dr Spiers.

Animals use a number of different mechanisms to navigate – the Sun’s polarized light rays, the Earth’s magnetic fields and the position of the stars.

This research provides new information about the specific roles of areas within the brains of expert human navigators.

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August 30, 2008

Website maps surnames worldwide

Website maps surnames worldwide

David Beckham

There are more Beckhams in the United States than Britain

A website which maps global surnames has been launched to help people find the origins of their name and how far it may have spread.

The Public Profiler site plots eight million last names using data from electoral rolls and phone directories.

The site covers 300 million people in 26 countries, showing the origins of names and where families have moved to.

David Beckham, for example, has an English name, but there are more Beckhams in the US than Britain.

But the region of the world with the highest concentration of people called Beckham was even further from the footballer’s east London origins – in the New Zealand province of Northland.

The site – http://www.publicprofiler.org/worldnames – also reveals which of the five million forenames are most closely associated with different surnames and lists the top regions and cities for each surname.

A name is now not just a statement of who you are but where you are
Professor Paul Longley

It was developed by a team of geographers from University College London.

Professor Paul Longley, one of the researchers, said: “The information is not just historical but geographical.

“We can link names to places – a name is now not just a statement of who you are but where you are.”

Most surnames originated in specific places in the world and remain most frequent in those areas, but have often spread to other countries because of migration, the research showed.

Searches for Britain’s three multi-gold medallists at the recent Olympics and the leaders of the three main political parties revealed some mixed results.

• Swimmer Rebecca Adlington’s surname is most prevalent in New Zealand

• Cyclist Chris Hoy’s surname is Irish but more common in Denmark

• Cyclist Bradley Wiggins’s surname is most popular in the US

• Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s surname tops the list in Australia

• Conservative leader David Cameron’s surname is most prevalent in New Zealand

• Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s surname is still most common in Britain

Prof Longley said that the site was currently struggling to cope with demand.

“We are being deluged with requests and we ask people to be patient. There is obviously a lot of interest in family names and family history globally,” he said.

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