Q&A: Dr Hugo Spiers

Dr Hugo Spiers of UCL’s Spatial Cognition Group on how neuroscience is breaking out of the lab and into the city

Tell us about London taxi drivers’ hippocampus

For The Knowledge the drivers have to learn 250,000 streets, which can take four years. The longer the driver works the larger the posterior hippocampus area of the brain becomes. It shows that using it to navigate space it is like a muscle, it grows physically. There have been about 12 different studies, I have worked on nine. We find drivers don’t often ‘think’ about routes, they ‘just know’. And even an amnesic driver, with no hippocampus, could still navigate the main and arterial routes – which fits with the idea the memories are consolidated elsewhere in the brain. 

What do the place cells and grid cells of the hippocampus do?

These are really jaw dropping. The idea is that for every part of space that you occupy, many place cells – neurons in your brain – ‘like’ it and fire action potentials: there’s massive activity from cells telling you that ‘you are here’. One of the big questions has been how place cells know where to fire. They basically need a metric system and grid cells give that latitude and longitude system. We have also found that place cells provide our memories with a bedrock of episodic space – a spatial temporal code.

Can neuroscience inform our understanding of space?

Without a doubt. But does it provide any guidance for architectural design? That is very questionable. Which should you trust, brain measurement or what people say? I would trust what people say. 

You are taking neuroscience out of the lab. Why is that important?

It is massively important to take people out into the street – I am one of the few neuroscientists in the world who does it (people want nice data). My experiments are complex and expensive with virtual reality and film, but with the boom in big data we are starting to be able to analyse complexity and we can also use mobile EEG [electroencephalogram] head sets for measuring electric activity in the brain. It is going beyond universities too – I have an interesting major project coming up with Deutsche Telekom to reference spatial navigation. I think we are on the cusp of a time when we can start to understand spatial cognition, social cognition and how we use our brain to construct its own sense of reality. 

Dr Spiers was speaking at Conscious Cities conference. For a full report click here