When navigating around our environment there are any number of technical gadgets that can help us. Cell phones have apps that contain directions and pictures of each turn to take when we are trying to get somewhere. Along the way, another app can point out good restaurants, gas stations and hotels or tourist attractions. The idea of stopping to ask a person a for directions is outdated and something most people would not consider.
Research into the brain and how it processes direction shows that navigational skills will wane and could eventually disappear if they are not used. Interestingly, while technology is keeping us from getting lost in our environment it’s contributing to skills getting lost in our heads. It’s not a question of whether or not someone is smart. It’s that navigation is a skill that needs to be constantly used to stay sharp.
A 2015 study of doctors in training in British hospitals showed that newly minted doctors were confident in their abilities to treat patients and understand the medical knowledge necessary to deal with most injuries and diseases that they were presented with. Their concerns were about non-technical skills and one of the issues cited was the need for better signage in hospitals. Close to half of recent medical school graduates reported getting lost in the hospitals they worked in because signage was not adequate. When a doctor needs to be in the right room or know where the equipment is kept, time matters.
When a GPS is used, drivers are not using vision and memory to learn how to get somewhere. The process in the brain is entirely different. Where once a paper map would be used, as well as landmarks and a visual assessment of a person’s surroundings, now it’s auditory instructions with no context. In London, cab drivers are famous for knowing their way around an incredibly complex city of over 25,000 streets. Before they can be licensed they have to pass a rigorous test to prove they know where everything is. Researchers there studied the part of the brain, the hippocampus, responsible for memory and they used taxi drivers for their subjects. Their results showed that the hippocampi in the brains of taxi drivers were larger than average. Further scans showed that this increase in size likely came about from memorizing the geography of the city. When they scanned someone’s brain as a novice driver before passing the test and then later after their training and after they had taken the test, the size of the hippocampus was measurably larger.
A study at Tufts University in 2014 asked participants to navigate through a virtual landscape. One group was given directions via a GPS-like audio and the other group did not have this aid. Everyone in the study got where they were supposed to be, but the group who used the audio navigational aid had a poorer memory of where they had been. They scored lower on the ability to recall landmarks or draw a map of the route they had taken. When these skills are not reinforced regularly they get rusty. The video below talks more about the GPS and what it could be doing to our innate sense of direction.
Sources: Tufts University
, Nature University College of London