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Whatcha guvnor: inside the mind of a London cabbie

By Clare S Ryan, on 28 November 2013

London’s black taxis – or cabs – are as iconic as Big Ben, red buses and the London Eye, so it was no surprise to arrive to a packed audience at Dr Hugo Spiers’s (UCL Cognitive, Perceptual & Brain Sciences) Lunch Hour Lecture on 21 November.

The lecture was a whistle stop tour of the brains of a London cabbie, famously studied by UCL neuroscientists for more than 15 years.

London cabbies – what’s the big deal?
The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave birth to the London cabbie as we know it: the deficiency of the taxi service at the time became widely publicised and, in response, the first test for London’s taxi drivers was devised, called the London Knowledge.

Today, drivers who can complete ‘the Knowledge’ are able to perform amazing feats of memory multiple times a day. To pass the test, they must memorise more than 25,000 streets and one thousand sites of interest so that they can mentally map the route from any point in London to any other.

Learning the knowledge takes three years (similar to a UCL undergraduate degree) and the exam is rarely passed first time.

As a result of this gruelling training, the brains of cabbies are of particular interest to neuroscientists, as they can be used to study lots of interesting questions, such as does special memory change the shape of cabbies’ brains? How does the brain navigate space? And, fundamentally, how does memory work?