The brain has a specialized region just for navigating the spatial environment. This structure is called the hippocampus, also known as the map reader of the brain. The hippocampus helps individuals determine where they are, how they got to that particular place, and how to navigate to the next destination. Reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways. In fact, using orientation and navigational skills often can actually cause the hippocampus and the brain to grow, forming more neural pathways as the number of mental maps increase.
A study by scientists at University College in London found that grey matter in the brains of taxi drivers grew and adapted to help them store detailed mental maps of the city. The drivers underwent MRI scans, and those scans showed that the taxi drivers have larger hippocampi when compared to other people. In addition, the scientists found that the more time the drivers spent on the job, the more the hippocampus changes structurally to accommodate the large amount of navigational experience. Drivers who spent more than forty years in a taxi had more developed hippocampi than those just starting out. The study shows that experience with the spatial environment and navigation can have a direct influence on the brain itself.
However, the use of modern navigational technology and smartphone apps has the potential to harm the brain depending on how it is used in today’s world. Map reading and orienteering are becoming lost arts in the world of global positioning systems and other geospatial technologies. As a result, more and more people are losing the ability to navigate and find their way in unfamiliar terrain. According to the BBC, police in northern Scotland issued an appeal for hikers to learn orienteering skills rather than relying solely on smartphones for navigation. This came after repeated rescues of lost hikers by police in Grampian, one of which included finding fourteen people using mountain rescue teams and a helicopter. The police stated that the growing use of smartphone apps for navigation can lead to trouble because people become too dependent on technology without understanding the tangible world around them.
At McGill University, researchers did a series of three studies on the effects of using GPS devices on the brain. The scientists wanted to measure the brain activity of people while using two methods that humans employ when navigating. The first method is called spatial navigation, and this is where landmarks are used to build those cognitive maps that help us determine where we are in a particular environment. The second is called stimulus-response. In this situation, humans run on auto-pilot mode and retrace their steps according to repetition. For example, taking the same route home from work becomes second nature after a while, and sooner or later you find yourself retracing the route out of habit, not thinking about how you got home. Researchers claimed that this mode is more closely related to the way a GPS is used to navigate.
What researchers found was significant in terms of how spatial orientation affects the brain. After performing fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans on people using both of those strategies, the individuals that used a spatial navigation strategy had an increased activity in the hippocampus. Conversely, they found that using a GPS excessively might to lead to atrophy in the hippocampus as a person ages, and this could put them at higher risk for cognitive diseases later in life. One of these diseases might be Alzheimer’s which impairs the hippocampus and leads to problems with spatial orientation and memory. Researchers also found a greater volume of grey matter in those who used spatial navigation, and this group scored higher on standardized cognition tests than those who used the other strategy. The results of this study demonstrate that using orienteering and building cognitive maps might be better for the brain than using a GPS.
Spatial Orientation and the Brain: The Effects of Map Reading and Navigation - GIS Lounge