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03/03/2020

Riding a bike is good for your brain

What goes on in a taxi driver's brain? More accurately, in the hippocampus? And even more specifically, in London taxis drivers’ hippocampus? Why so much mystery? Because this will prove the great plasticity of the brain and that it can be altered by training. Let us explain. 
Taxi drivers spend three to four years training around London on motorbikes, memorising the 25,000 streets in a 10km radius.
How do taxi drivers memorise the complex layout of a city? By training their hippocampus. Yet this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds and the area in question is not located in the leg, but in the cranial cavity. London taxi drivers are required to pass an exam based on memorising the thousands of streets that make up the centre of England’s capital. 
 
“Taxi drivers spend three to four years training around London on motorbikes, memorising the 25,000 streets in a 10km radius around Charing Cross station, as well as thousands of tourist attractions and hotspots.” Only half of them will pass the test, says this article.

The pumped-up hippocampus of London’s taxi drivers

 
What about the result? This memory training impacts the neuroplasticity of the brain, as “four years later, 39 of the 79 apprentice drivers have passed their driving test. Magnetic resonance images showed that the successful candidates had a larger hippocampus than four years earlier.” The brain, that substance at times electrified by sudden illuminations and at others incredibly lazy, thus spends its whole life learning and is even capable of evolving to adapt. 
 
To explain the expansion of this area of grey matter, “two hypothesis have been put forward: a production of new neurons, or the migration of neurons from frontal regions of the hippocampus. Either way, this evolution is a direct consequence of the taxi drivers’ special training. (…) This means that the brain is an organ capable of adjusting and evolving over time as a result of certain types of experiences," adds the author of this article. One grey matter (tarmac) inspires another!



Forget the GPS, let’s switch to manual


So inversely, do GPS devices make the brain lazy? Yes, because “like every muscle, the one which allows us to navigate softens and shrinks if we don’t use it,” mischievously explains Gédéon de Biyanvrac.

Is the millimetric guidance of Waze or Google Maps making us as dumb? What if, for once, we were to leave our screens in our pockets and make the effort to memorising the streets we most often use, of inventing different routes to entertain our neurons (such as desire lines). 

 







In fact, to follow up on my point, I would add that Nicholas Carr (an American critic of digitalisation and author of the bestseller “Is Internet making us stupid?”), believes that “the automation of society is a glass cage, a comfortable trap.” He warns that, from smartphones to Sat Navs, machines give us the illusion of more freedom, when in fact they deprive us of the intrinsic challenges of our existence.  So let us get out heads straight and get back on track. If pedalling increases muscle volume, it oxygenates our neurons and, as we now know, reinflates our hippocampus!
 
                        Text: Guillaume Desmurs                 Photos: Joel Barwic, Anigaïdo
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