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Good Navigators Have Different Brains

Update Date: Nov 27, 2013 10:20 AM EST

People with good navigational skills may have different brains, according to a new study.

New research reveals that the brains of people who can quickly know their way after travelling along as a passenger are different from the brains of people who always need GPS or maps for directions.

Lead researcher Joost Wegman of Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands, discovered that good navigators store relevant landmarks automatically on their way. In contrast, bad navigators follow a fixed procedure or route.

The findings also revealed that there are noticeable structural brain differences between good and bad navigators.

"These anatomical differences are not huge, but we found them significant enough, because we had a lot of data," Wegman said in a news release.

"The difference is in the hippocampus. We saw that good navigators had more so-called gray matter. In the brain's gray matter information is processed. Bad navigators, on the other hand, have more white matter - which connects gray matter areas with each other - in a brain area called the caudate nucleus. This area stores spatial actions with respect to oneself. For example, to turn right at the record store," he added.

Wegman and his team combined data from several studies done by the Radboud University research group Neural Correlates of Spatial Memory at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior.

"We always give participants extensive questionnaires in our studies. This allows us to explain possible differences in behavior afterwards. People generally have a good insight into their ability to find their way, so these questions provide a feasible way to assess these abilities. I have coupled the answers of these questionnaires with the brain scans we have collected over the years, which allowed us to detect these differences," Wegman concluded.

The findings are published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

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