What’s so great about being a taxi driver? On a day to day basis it seems mentally straining; dealing with inept drivers, traffic, construction and leg cramps. Robert De Niro certainly showed us what can happen after years of being a “Taxi Driver.” The job definitely isn’t a “Cash Cab,” no matter what Ben Bailey says. Songwriter Harry Chapin revealed that flying in your taxi is an escape from the past; “taking tips and gettin stoned.”
Though, London taxi drivers of black cabs have gained new respect in the world of neuroscience. Brain scans of taxi drivers drew some attention from researchers. The Hippocampus is that adored region of the brain named from the Latin word for seahorse. This ‘seahorse’ in your brain plays an integral part in memory and spatial navigation.
Dr. Eleanor Maguire helmed the research team at University College in London, giving 16 London taxi drivers structural MRI scans. When the MRI scans were compared to other control subjects, they found a striking similarity in the 16 taxi drivers. They all had a significantly larger area of the hippocampus in relation to spatial memory, but the front of their hippocampus was smaller.
This told researchers that the brains of taxi drivers actually formed according to their expansive visual memory of the city. This reinforced growing research around plasticity in the adult brain, which is promising for those who may suffer from neurological diseases or brain damage.
Dr. Maguire said in a BBC interview, “The hippocampus has changed its structure to accommodate their huge amount of navigating experience.” It was also evident that of the taxi drivers scanned, those with the most experience had a more developed posterior hippocampus. While the frontal part of the hippocampus in taxi drivers was smaller, the research did not imply this was damaging to their brains.
London taxi drivers undergo up to two years of training in order to comfortably navigate the city. This initial absorption of spatial memory gets the hippocampus going, but years of experience really flex it. Being a taxi driver involves the ability to readily access their spatial memory to navigate different routes every day. This is where the job differs from other driving occupations with delivery routes, which tend to be redundant and contained to a single area.
With this research in mind, even taking a part time job as a taxi driver becomes more appealing. Then when you’re out on the road and some jerk cuts you off, you can sit back and know that at least your brain is bigger.