Ever since technology took over our lives we get around new cities differently. We do not need to ask for direction or to look at blanket-size road maps. All we need to do is to turn on our satnav systems. However, this is the area that our granddad may be right about – technology is actually turning our brains off.
Scientists from UCL performed an interesting experiment. They asked 24 people to drive around London, while their brain activity was being monitored. Researchers were focusing on the hippocampus, which a brain region involved in memory and navigation. And, sure enough, there was no noticeable rise in activity in the hippocampus of those people who relied on satnav for navigation. Those who tried using their sense of direction had a much more active brain, especially when they were facing a larger number of options.
Scientists say that these results mean that people who are bad at navigating new cities are simple asking too much of their hippocampi. However, it is not the only region of the brain involved in successful navigation. Hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination. London taxi drivers have enlarged hippocampi – it grows as they learn new routes.
London is specifically bad for navigation, because its network of little streets is really confusing. Meantime Manhattan in New York is much less demanding on hippocampi of the drivers. Scientists are already thinking what it means for people suffering from dementia – they may not be driving anymore, but for them even navigating certain buildings may be a challenge.
While it may seem that exercising your brain and navigating yourself is a good thing, people suffering from dementia face some serious challenges navigating new places. Scientists say that this knowledge could be used to design places that are better for the wellbeing of the elderly. Senior author Dr Hugo Spiers explained: “we could look at the layouts of care homes and hospitals to identify areas that might be particularly challenging for people with dementia and help to make them easier to navigate. Similarly, we could design new buildings that are dementia-friendly from the outset”.
But as for younger and healthier people, they really should once in a while exercise their sense of direction. Not only it will allow them to make their brain momentarily more active, but it will also be extremely helpful in a situation when satnav simply is not available.