You’re probably aware of the study of London taxi drivers by University College London. It was discovered that Taxi drivers who spend 3 years learning ‘the knowledge’ in other words, learning their way around the complex street system in London, by utilising good study skills, actually change the structure of the parts of the brain concerned with space and direction.
When observed in MRI scanners it was found that they had a larger hippocampus compared with most people. The hippocampus is part of the brain associated with navigation. And the longer the taxi drivers spent developing a more detailed mental map of the city, the bigger their hippocampus got -changing its structure to accommodate the extra work it was doing.
It’s very much like lifting heavy weights at the gym! The more strain you put on your muscles, the more they grow and develop to acclimatise to the extra work.
Black Cab drivers in London spend 3 years learning to find their way about and they are only able to operate as a Black Cab driver when they are deemed to have ‘the knowledge’ of the city. Approximately 75% of them drop out, finding it hard work! And so it is. They are required to know every street and every road and how they connect, including several complex one-way systems, within a 6-mile radius of Charring Cross. And this is no mean feat.
They need to know 400 prescribed journeys, and eventually far more than this so that they can deliver any customer to their destination (one-way system allowing) as directly as possible.
It’s good to know that as well as having a highly-developed spatial and directional awareness, they also use mnemonics and other study skills. For example to remember the order of theatres on the north side of Shaftesbury Avenue: Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, Queens, they use the phrase: Little Apples Grow Quickly.
Knowing what a tall order it is to learn all the streets and how they connect, and knowing that the vast majority of people give up when they realise how hard it is, you might wonder what it is that has the other 25% persist until successful.
Their motivation is probably to do with the money they can earn as a black cab driver as opposed to a minicab driver. If you’ve ever jumped in a Black Cab and been affronted by the meter racing away with your money, you will have a good idea of what I mean! The cost of using a Black Cab is almost twice as much as a mini cab. But that’s the price you pay for a licensed driver. The alternative, can be risky.
Black taxi cabs are distinctive, easy to spot and to hail at the roadside. Qualified and licensed drivers make a good living.
As Uber taxi drivers and the rest of us have increasingly relied on satnavs to get about, so there’s been a corresponding shrinking of our hippocampus – the part of the brain involved in direction and…
Wait for it…
So what can we learn from this? Is it possible that good study skills change the structure of our brain to accommodate the learning we are doing?
And the answer is a resounding yes! Until recently it was thought that we were born with a full complement of brain cells, which continued to die off until the end. It is now known that the brain is quite plastic and adapts continually to new information and new skills. What’s more certain areas of the brain continue to make new brain cells, especially if you keep your body healthy and exercise regularly.
And the more you use your brain the more its structure changes to keep up. Taxi drivers who had been practising their skills for 40 years had a bigger hippocampus than their newbie counterparts.
No wonder then, with good study skills, your brain becomes quicker and quicker at learning new information. So, just like the cab drivers who persevered in learning ‘the knowledge’, it’s very much worth your while to persist, especially in the early days, while you’re still getting back into the swing of learning, if you’ve been away from the classroom for a while, because the harder you work, the faster your brain will change and grow, and the easier your revision will become.