What London Taxi Drivers Can Teach Us About Our Brains

What can you learn from a few London taxi cab drivers? A lot more than the shortest route from Buckhingham Palace to Picadilly Circus.

The groundbreaking London Taxi Cab study, published in 2000, used MRI technology to compare the brains of experienced taxi cab drivers and bus drivers who drive the city streets of London every day. In contrast to bus drivers, whose driving routes are well-established and unchanging, London taxi drivers undergo extensive training to learn how to navigate to thousands of places within the city. This makes them an ideal group to use to study the effects of spatial experience on brain structure.

The study focused on the hippocampus, which plays a role in facilitating spatial memory in the form of navigation. The MRI revealed that the posterior hippocampi of the taxi drivers were much larger than that of the bus drivers (who served as the control subjects). Even more exciting was that the size of the hippocampus directly correlated with the length of time that someone was a taxi driver–the longer someone drove a taxi, the larger their hippocampus.

The London Taxi Cab Study provides a compelling example of the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize and transform itself as it is exposed to learning and new experiences. Having to constantly learn new routes in the city forced the taxi cab drivers’ brains to create new neural pathways “in response to the need to store an increasingly detailed spatial representation.” These pathways permanently changed the structure and size of the brain, an amazing example of the living brain at work.

Fortunately, you don’t need a commercial drivers’ license to stretch your brain in new ways. All you have to do is continue to challenge yourself throughout your lifetime by learning new things, trying out different hobbies and interests, and engaging in mentally stimulating activities that keep your brain growing strong.

REFERENCES

Maguire, E., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. (2006).  London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis.  Hippocampus, 16 (12), 1091-1101.

Maguire, E., Gadian, D., Johnsrude, I., Good, C., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigational structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 97 (8) 4398-4403.