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London's Byways Provide Food for Thought

Study finds that cabdrivers--who spend years memorizing the city's every nook and cranny--generally have larger brains.

March 18, 2000|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — They've been accused of having big mouths and big opinions, but until now no one knew that London taxi drivers actually have bigger brains.

No one, that is, but London cabbies. They were unfazed by a scientific report published this week stating "the obvious"--that taxi drivers who can navigate a maze of back streets in manic traffic while holding forth on world affairs are brainier than the average bloke.

"I said to my wife last night: 'I told you so. I told you so,' " veteran driver Chris Davis said with a chuckle. "She said: 'What do you know? You're a cabdriver.' "

So much for scientific proof.

Nonetheless, researchers reported in the prestigious U.S. journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that brain scans of 16 right-handed taxi drivers showed that a particular region of the brain was a few millimeters larger than in a group of 50 right-handed men who don't drive taxis.

The longer the driver had been on the job, the bigger the hippocampus. That's not a university for African mammals, but the place where the brain keeps spatial and conscious memory.

London's 18,500 official cabbies have all passed what is called "the knowledge" to secure the license to drive a black cab. After being issued a so-called blue book with more than 450 routes around the capital, they generally spend the next two to three years committing to memory every street, alley, hospital, hotel, institution, nook and cranny of the city. Then they spend six months to a year undergoing periodic tests--administered by plainclothes Metropolitan Police officers--about what they know.

As a result of this unique training, London taxi drivers actually know where they are going--not an easy feat in a town where the "London A to Z" map guide lists 54 streets, roads, gardens or whatnots named Stanley, 56 Gloucesters and about 240 Oak-somethings.

"It took me 19 months to do 'the knowledge,' but I worked at it seven days a week and did 12,000 miles on a moped along 300-odd runs in the blue book," Terry Gomersall said.

The 54-year-old cabby has been driving long enough to remember when London's famous black cabs all were black and its taxi drivers had to wear "a collar and tie." Today, cabs are painted every color of the rainbow and Gomersall wears zippered fleece under his brass taxi driver's badge.

As for whether the drivers also wear bigger brains, driver Kevin Scott, 31, scoffed.

"If we had bigger and better brains, we wouldn't be doing this job, mate," he said. "I'd be a millionaire in Monte Carlo with a beer in one hand and a girl giving me a massage in the other."

Such humility never seems to stop a cabby from offering opinions about U.S. presidential politics or--a favorite topic of passengers from Los Angeles--wacky Californians. ("There they are driving their huge, gas-guzzling Mercedes-Benzes and passing laws about lighting barbecues," one driver said recently with a belly laugh. "I was in Los Angeles on the Fourth of July and felt like yelling, 'Get outta yer car and have a barbecue.' ")

Bill Chandler, 52, agrees with the popular perception that cabbies are opinionated.

"It's the way the job makes us. You go independent. You're on your own all the time," Chandler said.

For eight, 10, 12 hours a day, they listen to the radio while driving, read the papers while waiting and chat with an unending series of passengers.

"So many people tell you so many things, you've got an opinion on everything," driver Terry O'Brien said as he waited to pick up a fare outside Harrods department store.

"People pour their hearts out to you, tell you their marital problems, because they know they'll never see you again," he said. "You could write a book being a cabdriver."

Most simply store the material in their ample brains.

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