Becoming a London taxi driver isn’t as easy as you may think. Unlike other London folk who choose to take the tube or bus, drivers have to spend hours learning the city’s road network for a face-to-face exam at the Public Carriage Office to get a licence to kick-start their cabbie careers.
So what exactly does this gruelling process do to their brains? Well for starters, all that worthwhile learning not only makes them money, but according to research included in the Science Museum’s new ‘Who Am I?’ gallery, it also increases their memory power.
With 320 routes around London and scores of notable historic landmarks to recall, it is not surprising that London taxi drivers are now known to have different brains to the rest of us.
Neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire and her team discovered in the unique study that part of the hippocampus – an area of the brain supporting spatial navigation and memory – becomes larger when learning road knowledge.
A series of MRI brain scans on certain taxi drivers revealed that the volume of information that licensed cabbies have to remember makes physical changes to their brains.
In a nutshell, our brains are made up of 100 billion brain cells, called neurons. As we grow and develop, these neurons are ‘wired up’ to each other, and communicate through thousands of connections – synapses. Memories are formed when certain connections are strengthened.
How do connections between neurons become strengthened, so that the connection is ‘remembered’? Scientists know that if they give an electrical impulse to a pair of neurons, the two will communicate more easily in the future.
This process is known as long-term potentiation (LTP). The effect can last for weeks, or even months – long enough to make a memory. LTP is especially obvious in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain active in memory…………………………