Driving, navigation and learning significantly changes the brain, like how the cab drivers in the UK have a larger hippocampus.

The UC Berkeley defines learning as an active process that builds on prior knowledge and occurs in a complex social environment. It also allows learners to engage with specific ideas and concepts and requires motivation and cognitive engagement since mental effort and consistency are necessary.

Learning can significantly changes the brain, like how the cab drivers in the UK have a larger hippocampus. Driving and navigation both rely on spatial learning, which impacts the brain region responsible for memory called the hippocampus.

According to Futurity, the microscopic changes in the hippocampus are accompanied by rapid changes in the way it communicates with the rest of the brain. So how does learning to drive changes the brain?

Neural Plasticity

In the past, people believe that the brain stops to grow and changes when a person reaches a certain age. This idea was so widely accepted that in one point of tie this has become the central dogma of neurology. But in the latter half of the 20th century, it began to fall apart as evidence for neurogenesis in adult humans proved otherwise.

Although a 2018 study failed to find evidence on adult neurogenesis and opening the debate once more, the reinstating of the old dogma is very weak.

According to Discovery, new neurons are not needed for the brain to change. It can rearrange itself and create new pathways and connections to have new ways of getting things done. The concept is that learning reorganizes the brain itself even in the slightest change.

Data scientist and cognitive neuroscientist Emily Kubicek called this neural plasticity or neuroplasticity.

“Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to essentially strengthen or weaken neural connections based on experience or a heavily practiced skill,” Kubicek said. “What’s changing in our brain when we learn are the strength of connections and activity in our cortical areas.”

According to Positive Psychology, the brain rewires the neurons and create new connections as it learns something new, like driving and navigating. This mechanism helps the brain to adapt to new circumstances that happen on the daily basis, and something that should be stimulated.

Spatial Learning

The hippocampus is a part of the brain that is associated with memory and navigation. The study in 2000 about the London cab drivers concludes that the drivers got larger hippocampi as they learned the complex driving system of streets in London.

But it is not just with navigation as driving also changes the brain. Over time, the driver learns to master the skills of driving as well as doing it automatically while they listen to music, talk to the passengers or juggle their coffee cup. It takes a lot of coordination between many senses to achieve that.

The visual system processes the traffic in the surroundings, the auditory system process car horns and sirens, the motor neurons control the hands to keep it o the steering wheel while also holding a cup of coffee. But most importantly, as cab drivers, they should remember the best route for their passengers to get where they should be.

All these driving skills rely on spatial learning that connects with mathematical ability. Studies show that those who have learned better with spatial learning are more likely to succeed in STEM areas.

Originally published at The Science Times