People from Finland have a particularly good sense of direction. That’s according to a study of 2.4 million people who downloaded a phone game designed to test people’s ability to find their way around. Out of the 193 countries where the game was downloaded, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark scored among the top six countries that did best at the game.
It was created to help researchers develop a test for Alzheimer’s disease, as one of the first symptoms of this condition is getting lost, says Hugo Spiers of University College London. “It’s seen as a memory condition but the first thing to go is loss of spatial orientation.”
So far the team have only tested the game on healthy volunteers. To try the game out on as many people as possible, they made a free phone version called Sea Hero Quest, which systematically tests people’s navigation abilities.
After setting off in a boat and making several twists and turns through icebergs, the player has to aim a flare back to their starting point, which they can no longer see.
Analysing people’s scores, the team found that accuracy declined with age, even in young adulthood. “I thought it was going to decline once people got older because that’s what memory does,” says Spiers. “It was surprising that navigation abilities are worse when you are 30 than when you’re 19.”
The team presented their findings at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California, this week. They also found that men scored higher than women, and people did better if they had more experience playing computer games.
Adjusting their results to take account of such trends, the team found that people from Finland, who came top, did about 20 per cent better than UK participants, for example.
Spiers speculates that the high scores among Nordic nations may be a result of selection for good navigation abilities in their Viking and seafaring pasts. However, there could be alternative explanations – for example, people in Nordic countries may spend more time doing outdoor activities.
The team’s next step is to try the game with people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. A test for the early stages of the condition would be helpful in efforts to develop drugs that can slow its progression.