Hey, cabbie, nice “gray matter,”
“Knowledge is good,” according to the motto of Faber College, the fictional university depicted in the movie “Animal House.” And gaining “the knowledge” can be good for your brain, according to a report in the British science journal Current Biology.
Researchers from University College London studied the brains of 79 individuals about to begin the rigorous three to four years of training required to be a licensed London cabdriver and a control group of 39 adults who were not involved in the training. Training requires memorizing the layout, or—as cabbies put it—acquiring “the knowledge,” of central London’s labyrinth of 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks. Magnetic resonance images were taken of the subjects’ brains before and after training, and the brains of the 39 individuals who passed the test were compared to those who didn’t pass and the control group.
There were reportedly no discernable differences in the “before” images, but after completing the training, those who passed—or, as the researchers put it, experienced an “acquisition of an internal spatial representation of London”—had also increased the “gray matter” in their posterior hippocampus.
The qualified trainees, however, were also found to be worse at “recalling complex visual information” than the controls. Despite this, the researchers said this study offers encouragement for adults seeking to learn new skills as the brain “remains plastic” through adulthood.
Yet they cautioned that the study could not determine whether those that increased the amount of their gray matter did so because of their newfound knowledge or because they already had a genetic predisposition toward having a “more adaptable, ‘plastic’ brain.”