Spatial Orientation and the Brain: The Effects of Map Reading and Navigation

Filed in GIS Learning by on March 8, 2013
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The human brain is a remarkable organ. It has the ability to reason, create, analyze, and process tons of information each day. The brain also gives humans the ability to move around in an environment using an innate sense of direction. This skill is called spatial orientation, and it is especially useful for finding routes in an unfamiliar place, following directions to another person’s house, or making a midnight raid of the refrigerator in the dark. Spatial orientation is crucial for adapting to new environments and getting from one point to another. Without it, people will walk around in endless circles, never being able find which way they want to go.

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.

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  1. GPS and map user says:

    They are comparing apples with oranges! I use a GPS, which has maps loaded, including all points of interest, etc. I also always use my GPS in conjunction with my ELECTRONIC map – no need for paper, although they are identical in terms of data. Paper is a red herring in this argument

  2. Hi – this was great. I use GPS quite a bit, living in a new city, when I need to get to a meeting quickly in a place I haven’t been before. From that standpoint, smartphones are great – a paper map requires flipping from page to page (and usually page 80 then page 22 then page 155). However, I sense right away my understanding of a vicinity if I have arrived there by directions or by paper map. I am able to find my way again much more easily if I have used the paper map – or directions provided by the host (the third group in the study if you will) than if I have used the GPS. While its efficient, I can completely confirm, using both techniques – and the third (cabdrivers) – that I learn almost nothing by using GPS except how to get there quickly, than if I use the paper map or directions from colleagues. That is, I would like to vouch for GPS providing an important function, but can also confirm it does not expand my understanding of an area – maddeningly so.

    And I am happy to recognize myself in those women that can find areas quickly. In many instances, I have male hosts spell out directions as if I had never driven before, calling several times along the route (messing up my GPS!) and I wonder if they feel compelled by the stereotype that women are not spatial. Its only because its the first trip there. I know when I get to that T-junction, or rotary/roundabout/traffic circle, or hospital or liquor store with the guy holding the glass of Chivas, I know immediately that I am to take a right. This was great – thanks!

  3. Seyoum Melese says:

    The study is interesting and help each of us to think again.Yet, there are economic and security related questions to be solved every day using these systems. In this juncture,we might need to compromise with the modern geospatial technologies. It seems to me spatial literacy in schools should be designed and practiced.

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