The Knowledge

The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like A London Cabbie

As taxis can be hailed in the street and asked to go anywhere, taxi drivers must have a thorough knowledge of London. This is why taxi drivers have to learn and pass the world-famous Knowledge.

London’s taxi service is the best in the world, in part because our cab drivers know the quickest routes through London’s complicated road network. There are thousands of streets and landmarks within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Anyone who wants to drive an iconic London cab must memorize them all: the Knowledge of London.

The Knowledge is the world’s most demanding training course for taxicab drivers, and applicants will usually need to pass at least twelve “appearances” (periodical one-on-one oral examinations undertaken throughout the qualification process), with the whole process averaging 34 months to pass.

The Knowledge was introduced as a requirement for taxi drivers in 1865. Its origins are unclear, but some trace the test’s creation to the Great Exhibition of 1851:

when London’s Crystal Palace played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. These tourists, the story goes, inundated the city with complaints about the ineptitude of its cabmen, prompting authorities to institute a more demanding licensing process. The tale may be apocryphal,

You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.

It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, (…) But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn.

It’s clear than in term of navigation London has nothing to do with “the City”, but I would invite Jody Rosen and Robert Lordan to join me for a bike ride along some not to large villages in Madrid. Some urban topologies are an authentic labyrinth. How do you navigate them without a GPS guide?

There have been hundreds of papers about simulating the future, but nobody’s looked at it in the context of spatial navigation, Four years ago, Hugo Spiers et. al. published an article in which they analyse how and when the brain processes topological structures to guide future behaviour during everyday life.

Evidence from neuropsychology, neuroimaging and electrophysiology indicates that the hippocampus supports retrieval of the past to simulate the future. The brain contains a built-in GPS that relies on memories of past navigation experiences to simulate future ones. Two distinct brain regions that cooperate to simulate the topology of one’s environment and plan future paths through it when one is actively navigating. In addition, the research suggests both regions become inactive when people follow navigational instructions instead of using their spatial memories.

The neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire et. al. reported in 2000 that black cab drivers who had spent an average of two years learning the Knowledge had a larger hippocampus than control subjects.

The posterior hippocampi of taxi drivers were significantly larger relative to those of control subjects. A more anterior hippocampal region was larger in control subjects than in taxi drivers. Hippocampal volume correlated with the amount of time spent as a taxi driver

Now, when we are facing a future dominated by Uber and pervasive GPS navigation, the question Nicholas Carr should ask is if is there still an argument for passing the Knowledge. Why would anyone want a larger hippocampus?

We do not know the answer yet, but for the time being Hugo Spiers’s Taxi Brains Project at Spiers Lab is looking for them in order to study Alzheimer’s disease:

Understanding which parts of the hippocampus get bigger in relation to navigation ability will provide critical insights needed to help develop diagnostics for the earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Early diagnosis will help doctors treat patients sooner, limiting the disease and improving quality of life.

So, if you have that “Knowledge”, maybe you can contribute!

Volunteers will receive up to £30 for participating, be compensated for any parking costs, and get a picture of their brain for taking part.


Featured Image: Robert Lordan, The Knowledge: Train Your Brain Like A London Cabibie (Cover)

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