Sep 152008

Reading as many accident reports as MAC does, one not infrequently gets to wondering what goes on inside some navigators’ brains. Someone out there is doing just that, to wit, Dr. Hugo Spears of University College, London.

True, his subjects are London cabbies, drivers legendary for their navigational skills in part acquired by a long training programme known colloquially as ‘The Knowledge’. They deal with many of the same challenges as navigating officers: planning a route, getting from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible, avoiding navigational hazards, dealing with sudden changes of destination or route, knowing where they are in relationship to where they want to be. They just happen to do it on a shorter timescale.

In animals, including humans, navigation involves a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus seems to grow the more it’s used as research has shown that it’s bigger in taxi drivers than in people who don’t navigate for a living.

Dr. Spears and his fellow boffins put 20 taxi drivers into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine hooked up to an adapted PlayStation2 game and took them on several jobs through London, taking images of the brain as they did so.

They found that the hypocampus came into play when route planning, or when there was a sudden change of destination. So when you’re laying out your passage plan, that’s the part of the brain you’re using.

Another part of the brain came into play when faced with an unexpected situation like a blocked intersection. Yet another part of the brain appears to work out how close one is to the destination and increases its activity the closer you are.

Whether or not this data can be used to enhance navigational safety remains to be seen,but it’s certainly part of the human element spectrum.

It would be interesting to run the same sort of experiments with navigational officers, although there is a school of thought that considers that anyone volunteering to go to sea in the current environment needs their brains tested anyway.

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