Inside the Mind of a London Cabbie

1 Sep

If modern London was ancient Athens, London taxi drivers would be worshipped as the Gods of Navigation, appeased only with offerings of fluffy dice and pine-scented air fresheners.

Because, before being able to drive one of the legendary black cabs, a wannabe taxi driver must pass a gruelling trial known as ‘The Knowledge’. This consists of memorising 320 routes along London’s 25,000 streets, as well as all nearby landmarks and places of interest.

Drivers train for up to four years before taking the test, racing around the capital on a scooter until every last route has been committed to memory. This wouldn’t be such a difficult task in a place like New York City, where the roads are numbered and gridded, but on London’s gloriously haphazard streets it’s an undertaking of epic proportions.

Spot the difference: a snapshot of the New York City (left) and London (right) street layouts (credit: Google Maps)

This navigational know-how has made London taxi drivers surprisingly popular with neuroscientists, who have long wondered how cabbies retain so much detailed information. Around ten years ago, Eleanor Maguire and colleagues at University College London discovered that part of the hippocampus, a structure in the brain associated with memory and navigation, is larger in taxi drivers, and that this region grows with taxi driving experience. Their conclusion: the information acquired during The Knowledge physically changes a cabbie’s brain!

But there’s an alternative way to interpret this result: what if the cabbies’ hippocampus differences were already there before The Knowledge? Maybe people with these brain structure peculiarities naturally have better navigational skills and are therefore more likely to become taxi drivers? To test this, Maguire and colleagues looked for a relationship between navigational skill and hippocampus size in people with no taxi training. The researchers failed to find a link, confirming that the taxi drivers’ brain differences are due to The Knowledge, rather than to any innate, pre-existing navigational talent.

A mini minicab (credit: lmg123)

This is all very exciting for neuroscientists because it means that the brain can exhibit ‘plastic’ behaviour, changing its grey matter volume in response to environmental stimulation. The process even works backwards: a study of retired cabbies found that the brain’s structural changes start to reverse once The Knowledge stops being used (“use it or lose it”).

This plastic ability of the brain could be important for people with brain injuries or diseases such as Parkinson’s. If, as these studies suggest, stimulating a brain can change its structure, it may be that brain injury patients can be rehabilitated using a similar method.

A London cabbie...he's probably got a bigger hippocampus than you (credit: silvertony45)

Meanwhile, a follow-up study has found that taxi drivers aren’t completely infallible. Katya Woollett, a researcher at London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, has tested the ability of cabbies to find their way around a simulation of London which incorporates a new, made-up district. Surprisingly, taxi drivers fared worse at navigating around this ‘new London’ than people without any navigational expertise.

This may be because the modified city is too similar to the taxi drivers’ memorised street maps, making it difficult for a cabbie to change his route-finding habits. Some drivers also recalled experiencing similar problems when the Canary Wharf district opened in the 1990s.

So this proves that not even London cabbies are perfect navigators – a small nugget of hope, maybe, for those of us who’d fail to find our way out of a paper bag.

Further reading:

ResearchBlogging.orgMaguire, E. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97 (8), 4398-4403 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.070039597
ResearchBlogging.orgMaguire, E., Spiers, H., et al. (2003). Navigation expertise and the human hippocampus: A structural brain imaging analysis Hippocampus, 13 (2), 250-259 DOI: 10.1002/hipo.10087
ResearchBlogging.orgWoollett, K., & Maguire, E. (2010). The effect of navigational expertise on wayfinding in new environments Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30 (4), 565-573 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.03.003


6 Responses to “Inside the Mind of a London Cabbie”

  1. Greta C. September 12, 2011 at 3:25 am #

    A while ago, a London Cabbie helped me out of a big jam.
    I had no money, and was at Heathrow Airport, waiting for a stand-by flight. Hungry and tired of camping out in the airport, I called a friend of a friend of a friend, who said they could get me some money if I could get into London proper.
    The cabbie nicely drove me to downtown London without any fare from me. I assured him I would pay him once we got to the place I had intended. When we got there, the place was closed: no money.
    The Cabbie was so incredibly nice: He took me back to Heathrow so I could go home to America: all this for no money from me. 2 days later I caught a flight back home, intending to pay the cabbie as soon as I had the money.
    I promised him I would pay him, but I didn’t.
    My bad excuse is: I lost his letter. (I did move around a lot.)
    He even sent me a letter about 2 years later to say how much he had needs: I am ashamed to say: I still did not pay him.
    I had fallen on bad times. Now, times are bad again, but it has occurred to me that I could pay this Cabbie back with interest by using blogs or tweets or emails or what have you.
    So, Super Duper Cabbie, if you are out there, send me details of our encounter: what we did in your cab, what I was doing in London, my reaction when I didn’t get the money to pay you, whatever you can remember.
    If it matches up with my memories, this time I WILL send you payment, in full, with interest.

    • thesoftanonymous September 12, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

      Wow…that taxi driver sounds like a bit of a legend. The odds of him reading my blog are probably quite miniscule, but you never know! I hope you manage to repay his good deeds 🙂

  2. London minicabs September 28, 2011 at 5:58 am #

    There are still good people outhere which is nice to know. The Anderson Shelter is a good blog maybe you could try there. Also you might get lucky. I hope you find him he sounds like a star!

  3. View from the Mirror March 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    I took part in this study, so it’s great to see people discovering it!

    If you’re interested, i have a section on my blog about what it was like to learn the Knowledge and train as a cabbie.

  4. thesoftanonymous March 4, 2012 at 7:25 pm #

    Thanks for the comment! I had a browse through your experiences of The Knowledge…really fascinating stuff, especially the bits about learning at night.


  1. Where Are You From? | Micah in London - September 11, 2015

    […] The staff at the hostel, like pretty much everyone that I’ve interacted with in Britain so far, is incredibly friendly. The people in London just seem genuinely polite and willing to help out. The hostel staff has taken about 15 minutes to give each guest an in-depth overview of the city of London and where the hostel is located. This is a huge shift in interaction since I was in NYC right before I left. It can be dangerous to judge an entire city on the basis of your tourist interactions with a few of its inhabitants, but I do believe that geography influences and shapes human culture. This is why I think that you can never really understand someone completely until you’ve been to where they grew up. If you want to really know someone, visit their hometown. Interacting with a person will tell you who he is; if you want to know why he is that way you must experience the same geography and surrounding culture that he experienced in his formative years. Of course other factors like family, education, and friends are fundamental to a person’s development as well, but those building blocks are also impacted by geography. In NYC, for example, the impersonal, sky-scarping buildings, and meticulously planned and named roadways mirror the personality of the people who call it home. New Yorkers can come across as functionally-focused, seeing human relationships as means to an end. They aren’t always fond of visitors or tourists who slow down their own commute or interrupt their jobs to ask questions. Those are negative examples, but of course their geography impacts New Yorkers in a positive way too. Most notably in the fact that the City lies in New York harbor, which allows for an influx of immigrants from all over the world to arrive and contribute to the human diversity of the landscape. The city of London was less of a planned structure and more naturally developing (see the map below for a good contrast between the two cities from […]

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