M. R. O’Connor’s book Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World came out in April from St. Martin’s Press. Not coincidentally, she’s published a couple of pieces on the subject of that book, both of which focus on humans’ ability to pay attention to their surroundings, and the effect that relying on GPS directions might have on that ability. In a piece for Undark, O’Connor argues that “our unshakeable trust in GPS,” which traces itself back through hundreds of years of believing in the infallibility of maps, gets us lost because we’re relying on the device rather than our senses. Her piece for the Washington Post focuses on the role of the hippocampus in navigation and spatial awareness, and the need to exercise that part of the brain.
It’s become a commonplace that modern technology has eroded our ability to navigate: that relying on GPS and smartphones is destroying our brains’ abilities to form cognitive maps and that we’d be utterly lost without them.1 I’m not sure I subscribe to that point of view: plenty of people have been getting themselves lost for generations; relying on an iPhone to get home is not much different from nervously having to follow someone’s scribbled directions without really knowing where you’re going.
For my part, I can’t get lost. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for me to get lost: that has, in fact, been known to happen. I mean that I can’t allow myself not to know where I am under any circumstances. I’ve got a pretty good cognitive map, but if I’m in a strange city without a map of said city, I’m deeply uncomfortable if not upset; provide me with a map to get my bearings with and I’m immediately at ease. In my case, having an iPhone—with multiple map applications—means I don’t have to get to the nearest map outlet as soon as freaking possible. It’s not, in other words, an either-or situation.
John Edward Huth is firmly in the former camp. He’s a particle physicist at Harvard who’s worked on the Higgs boson who for years has been running an interesting side gig: he teaches a course on what he has called “primitive navigation”—the ancient means of navigating the world that existed prior to the advent of some later technology. The course, and the accompanying book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2013), are an exercise in recapturing those methods.
A recent study suggests that there’s a link between a good sense of smell and a good sense of direction, with the same brain areas being implicated in both abilities. As someone who has difficulty getting lost who also has a precise sense of smell, I resemble this study, which was published at Nature Communications. [Boing Boing]
Developmental topographic disorientation is a neurological disorder that prevents people from making cognitive maps. People suffering from DTD literally get lost in familiar surroundings: their home, to and from work. As someone who literally cannot get lost, I have a hard time imagining what that could possibly be like. Enter The Woman Who Gets Lost Every Day, a short film about Sharon Roseman, a woman with DTD who shares how she experiences and navigates the world in her own words. [The Atlantic]
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]
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]
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 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]
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.
Milner 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.