Monday, June 7, 2010

About the effect of GPS technology on human sense of direction

Can GPS help your brain get lost?

Increasing reliance on global positioning systems could damage our own internal sense of direction and have other unforeseen effects on the brain, neurological research suggests.

From GIS Lounge

As part of a larger article on the real and hypothesized effects of relying on computerized navigation systems on the mind, Alex Hutchinson in the Canadian magazine The Walrus looked at research on spatial cognition.
The ability to navigate successfully can be achieved by either of two different strategies in the brain which Hutchinson explains in Global Impositioning Systems :

Giuseppe Iaria and McGill University researcher VĂ©ronique Bohbot demonstrated in a widely cited 2003 study that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories :
  • one is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks — creating a cognitive map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop and other destinations sit on the street grid.
  • the other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park.
Those that prefer one method over the over is split evenly with half of the population using cognitive mapping, and the other half using stimulus-response.

Women ‘may struggle with maps but are better navigators than men' :
Another recent study by researchers from National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City comparing routing methods by groups of men and women, found that women tend to use landmarking to remember the best routes.
According to the scientists, the study's finding reinforces the idea that male and female navigational skills have evolved differently over time.
The male strategy is the most useful for hunting down prey - a practice which has led modern man to navigate by creating a mental map, then imagining their positions on it.
Women, however, are more likely to recall their routes by using landmarks if they are retracing paths to the most productive patches of plants.
According to researchers, it all goes back to the Pleistocene epoch - which began more than 2.5m years ago - when humans' route finding skills were honed differently for the distinct tasks of hunters and gatherers.
Luis Pacheco-Cobos, who led the research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, said: "These findings show that women perform better and more readily adopt search strategies appropriate to a gathering lifestyle than men."

Though the data can only be extrapolated so far, Jason Lerch’s mouse studies (research at the mouse imaging centre at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children) suggest that human brains begin to reorganize very quickly in response to the way we use them.
The implications of this concern Bohbot.
She fears that overreliance on GPS … will result in our using the spatial capabilities of the hippocampus less, and that it will in turn get smaller.
Other studies have tied atrophy of the hippocampus to increased risk of dementia.
“We can only draw an inference,” Bohbot acknowledges. “But there’s a logical conclusion that people could increase their risk of atrophy if they stop paying attention to where they are and where they go.”

If a few years in a taxi can produce noticeable differences in the organization of the brain (see link below), imagine what a lifetime of roaming the featureless Arctic or sailing between remote Polynesian islands would do. :-)

The area of research that looks at the mind’s ability to map out geography, and the reverse effect of navigation experience on the development of the mind is relatively new.
Cognitive maps are the way the brain forms a virtual representation of the environment and the term was introduced in 1948 by Edward Tolman.
Those individuals that experience no activity in the area of brain responsible for cognitive maps are diagnosed as having “developmental topographical disorientation.”
Giuseppe Iaria, an assistant professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Calgary and Jason Barton, a professor at the University of British Columbia, recently published their research on this newly named disorder in the journal Neuropsychologia.

If you’ve always suspected that your cognitive mapping skills are shaky, you can take Isaria and Barton’s series of nine tests designed to assess your orientation skills.
The entire test takes about ninety minutes and you are required to do the entire study in one sitting. If you complete the study and supply your email address, the researchers will email you a report on your test results.

Links :
  • ScienceDaily : Getting lost, a newly discovered developmental brain disorder
  • Times : Want to find your way fast ? Follow a girl
  • TheIndependent : Taxi drivers' knowledge helps their brains grow
  • TheWeek : This is your brain on GPS
  • NewScientist : Why humans can’t navigate out of a paper bag
  • NYTimes : Why we can find our way to the moon but get lost in the mall
  • WashingtonPost : Are Google Maps and GPS bad for our brains ?

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