Monday, February 06, 2012

On losing our sense of direction

Last week I drove around Los Angeles in a rented car with three co-workers, all smart competent women, all with more experience driving in that sprawling city than I have. We were navigating between two points that several of us had visited multiple times. We got off course twice in 15 minutes. We used the GPS in our iPhones to get back on track. All went fine.

My co-workers all announced they "have no sense of direction." I do have a sense of direction. Though I knew we were going astray, I also didn't want to interfere with the others perfectly adequate form of route finding, so I stayed out of the discussion. I would not have been able to explain why I had a different perception of where we were.

In the New York Times, Julia Frankenstein explored some scientists' conclusion that the availability of GPS is changing how we create mental patterns, mental spacial maps.

… in my opinion, it is likely that the more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps. Unlike a city map, a GPS device normally provides bare-bones route information, without the spatial context of the whole area. We see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way. Developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.

Our brains act economically: they try to decrease the amount of information to be stored (e.g., by relating new thoughts to already known content) and avoid storing unnecessary information. That may be the unconscious appeal of a GPS, but it means we’re not pushing our brains to work harder.

And a GPS device may even contradict your mental map by telling you to go left (e.g., for a faster highway) while your target is actually to the right. All of this leads us to use our mental maps even less. ...

And there is more: The psychologist Eleanor A. Maguire and her colleagues at University College London found that spatial experience actually changes brain structures. As taxi drivers learned the spatial layout of London, the gray matter in their hippocampal areas — that is, the areas of the brain integrating spatial memories — increased. But if the taxi drivers’ internal GPS grew stronger with use, it stands to reason that the process is reversible after disuse. You may degrade your spatial abilities when not training them, as with someone who learned a musical instrument and stopped playing.

Navigating, keeping track of one’s position and building up a mental map by experience, is a very challenging process for our brains, involving memory (remembering landmarks, for instance) as well as complex cognitive processes (like calculating distances, rotating angles, approximating spatial relations). Stop doing these things, and it’ll be harder to pick them back up later.

She says the remedy for what we are losing is that same as in most forms of physical activity: "practice."

I suspect that the reason I have a highly developed "sense of direction" is that I thrive on practice. I've been known to drive around unfamiliar cities simply collecting a sense of how the place is ordered, for the fun of it. For whatever reason, this is one of my delights.

For many people, mental mapping may be becoming an obsolete exercise. I'd be sad to lose this pleasure, but it may seem less valuable to those who've never developed it. This is a reminder from daily life that we are changed by our technology and environment, changed more rapidly and more significantly than we might imagine.


Rain said...

We don't use GPS devices at all and know many who depend on them but find they goof up. What I wonder is if you are onto something about why we as a people don't seem able to see what's happening to us. The powers that be want us to concentrate on our destination (which we may never reach) but we don't see what's happening all around us. Could this be deliberate training? If so, like the frog in gradually warming water, it's worrisome...

sfmike said...

"I've been known to drive around unfamiliar cities simply collecting a sense of how the place is ordered, for the fun of it. For whatever reason, this is one of my delights." Thanks for destroying the planet, Jan.

I do the same thing with walking and public transportation in strange cities and love it, and not out of any sense of virtue. It's just much easier to meet people, smell neighborhoods, watch how people go about their daily business in a strange place.

New Years Day I went on a day trip with an old Hungarian friend who likes to drive around and get lost. We were in Santa Rosa looking for the Luther Burbank Gardens, his new GPS with the female voice kept telling us to go in directions I knew had to be incorrect, and a BBC quiz show was going full blast on the radio. It was so cacophonously disturbing I almost jumped out of his moving car.

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