Friday, 18 November 2016

get lost

Yesterday, the BBC News website carried a story under the following headline:
Dementia game ‘shows lifelong navigational decline’
As someone who is 70 years old, and who prides himself on his navigational prowess, I was naturally intrigued. However, my reaction after reading the story can be summed up in one word. Bollocks! Of course, there were statements in the article with which I could not disagree, such as ‘Getting lost is one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease’. But then, as someone who has tried to teach the elements of map-reading to hundreds of people, I know that most are hopeless at navigation to begin with. When I lived in London between 1978 and 1981, I was constantly amazed by the number of visitors who couldn’t find their way around the Tube network, despite the clear signposting.

Apparently, the research described in the BBC report involved using a smartphone to play a video game that involved ‘sail[ing] a boat around desert islands and icy oceans’. According to the report, 2.4 million people had downloaded the game, and the research team, from University College London (UCL), had analysed the results to conclude that people’s navigational skills began to decline from their teenage years onwards.

One of the set ‘tasks’ in the game was to fire a flare in a particular direction, and it would seem that average accuracy fell from 74 percent for teenagers playing the game to 46 percent for players aged 75. The UCL researchers claim that this ‘suggests the sense of direction declines consistently after the teenage years’, but I would suggest that all it shows is that teenagers are better at playing video games than older people.

There were other findings, including that men scored better than women, although that too could be down to boys being more adept at video games than girls. Perhaps the most intriguing of the interim results reported was that people from Nordic countries scored consistently above the global average. There was reference to a ‘Viking spirit’, although no explanation of why this might be so was offered.

Of course, anecdotal evidence does not automatically invalidate rigorous scientific research, but I would have no hesitation, as someone who has navigated successfully across featureless deserts and routinely through miles of thick fog, in claiming that my sense of direction is better than that of the average teenager, although my ability to play a video game is probably crap.

A more accurate test of a person’s navigational skills would be to take them along one of my bike rides here in Hong Kong, then ask them to retrace their steps exactly. My prediction is that very few people would be able to do so. Although I do this all the time when traversing new paths for the first time, I don’t consider it easy given the dozens of places where it is possible to take a wrong turn.

So what do I think of the conclusions of this research? Will it eventually result in the development of a simple diagnostic test for dementia? You can probably guess:

Get lost!

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