Scanning the Monk

| March / April 2005

Is the religion of tomorrow hidden in our brains?

LONDON'S BOXY black cabs, with their big interiors and fold-out jump seats, are marvels of comfort and convenience. The cabbies themselves are marvels of another sort. Unlike New York taxi drivers, who usually can learn enough about their city's simple grid to get a license in days, London cabbies can spend years acquiring what they reverently call "the Knowledge." A cabbie there once told me how he had bicycled through London's intricate, medieval byways month after month, memorizing every corner and cobblestone in order to pass his trade's stringent tests. "I've got this town's whole bloody street map, down to the last lamppost, etched right here on my brain," he said with a finger-tap to his forehead.

His claim may not be much exaggerated, according to a study by University College in London. Researchers there discovered that the longer the cabbies had their jobs, the larger was an area of the brain -- the right rear hippocampus -- known to be crucial to storing mental maps of the environment. They concluded that a "redistribution of gray matter" had occurred after prolonged mental habit. "If you do something, anything, even play Ping-Pong, for 20 years, eight hours a day, there's going to be something in your brain that's different from someone who didn't do that," notes Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn. "It's just got to be."

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