Satnavs and ‘Switching Off’ the Brain

More on the impact of GPS on our cognitive function. A new study identifies brain activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal lobes while navigating city streets—areas of the brain involving memory, planning and decision-making. There was no additional brain activity from the control group (using satnavs). The University College London news release on the study suggests that using a satnav “switches off” those parts of the brain, but it may be more fair to say that it fails to switch them on.

It’s hardly groundbreaking news to suggest that not having to think about where you’re going results in less activity in the areas of the brain that involve remembering things and deciding what to do next, but experimental research does need to establish such things. [The Truth About Cars]

Gender Differences in Spatial Ability Are a Social Construct

A recent psychology paper challenges the notion that men are better than women at directions. When the same test was presented as a measure of spatial ability that women typically did worse at, women did worse than men. But when the same test was presented as a measure of empathy, women did just as well as men. Social conditioning, in other words, may be at play here. Good magazine. [MAPS-L]

How Not to Get Lost

I am not one of those people who is always getting themselves lost. In fact the idea of lost is a more or less academic concept to me: I have a rock-solid sense of direction. I suspect that the same is true for most of the map aficionados who read this website. But maybe you are someone who gets lost very easily, or you at least know someone who is. For such people, the New York Times’s Christopher Mele has a set of practical tips to improve your sense of direction, most of which are predicated on grounding yourself, observing your surroundings and relying not so much on the technology. [MAPS-L]

Are Transit Maps Too Complicated?

Are transit system maps too complicated? Human beings can only process a finite amount of information at once (eight bits, or yes/no decisions—on maps that would mean 28 or 256 connection points); researchers examining the transit systems of 15 large metropolitan areas found that many trips exceeded that eight-bit limit, especially when multi-modal trips (e.g. subway plus bus or tram) are involved (subway-only trips tended to fall under the limit). System maps with too many data points are overwhelming. “We have found that, in the largest cities, the addition of bus routes with maps that are already too complicated to be used easily by travelers implies that the cognitive limit to urban navigation is exceeded for multimodal transportation systems.” A single map, in other words, is no longer sufficient or useful in such cases. [via]

‘Could Society’s Embrace of GPS Be Eroding Our Cognitive Maps?’

Earlier this month in the New York Times, Greg Milner looked at something that was a frequent subject during The Map Room’s first life: people getting themselves lost by blindly following their GPS units (or satnavs, as the British call them).

Could society’s embrace of GPS be eroding our cognitive maps? For Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at the University of Freiburg’s Center for Cognitive Science, the danger of GPS is that “we are not forced to remember or process the information—as it is permanently ‘at hand,’ we need not think or decide for ourselves.” She has written that we “see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way.” In this sense, “developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.” GPS abets a strip-map level of orientation with the world.


pinpointMilner is the author of the forthcoming book Pinpoint: How GPS Is Changing Technology, Culture, and Our Minds (W. W. Norton, May 2016): pre-order at Amazon or iBooks.

For another look at how GPS may be affecting our brains’ ability to navigate, see “Global Impositioning Systems,” a long read by Alex Hutchinson in the November 2009 issue of The Walrus, which I told you about in 2011.