(Cognitive) Maps and Legends

I’ve always been skeptical that a person’s sense of direction is an empirically measurable thing, and that someone can have a better sense of direction than someone else. I’ve always tended to think that those with a self-professed “bad sense of direction” were just too lazy to think about what they have decided is someone else’s problem. Directions? That’s for the chauffeur to worry about. Not being able to read a map seems like it’s not some innate shortcoming but a product of indifference. And the ramifications of this fundamental negligence merely continue to multiply as the ability to orient oneself becomes more and more pertinent. To plead a poor sense of direction is to confess a craving for dependency.

Perhaps I’m unsympathetic to the directionally challenged because I’m never afraid to get lost. It strikes me as an inconvenience at worst and in most cases an opportunity for discovery. I usually don’t hesitate to take an exit, any exit, off a freeway if the road is congested — tangling with surface streets is all part of the fun and the only way to get to know a city. Getting to scrutinize maps is half the reason I take driving trips anywhere. I like unearthing short cuts, even when they are to places I’ll never need to go. I think makes me exude some sort of palpable navigational confidence, because I tend to get asked for directions in cities I am only visiting — even abroad in countries where I don’t speak the language.

Obviously, I think GPS is unnecessary if not counterproductive. Only the willfully ignorant, I tend to believe, would choose to rely on one. And now an article (via The NYT Ideas blog) by Alex Hutchinson in the Walrus, a Canadian journal, offers me some support for my intolerance, catering to all my biases. It concludes with a paean to getting lost. (A researcher tells Hutchinson, “You know, I lived in Paris, and to me one of the most beautiful things was just getting lost sometimes in these very small streets, and having a coffee and a cigarette with strangers, and going back trying to find your way…. These days, there are very few moments you actually have the freedom to get lost.”) And there is even an obligatory anecdote about GPS-dependent morons who “accidentally” end up on railroad tracks and have their cars crushed by commuter trains.

The main gist of the article is that GPS may be compromising people’s sense of direction by altering the way they think. “Our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains,” Hutchinson notes, drawing on the research of neurological researchers Véronique Bohbot and Giuseppe Iaria into our capability to form cognitive maps. Using GPS, they suspect, may lead us to lose our habit of making such internal maps (shrinking the hippocampus, the area of the brain that governs navigation) and leave us hopelessly and perpetually lost. Hutchinson details a patient of Iaria’s who had a tendency to get lost in her own neighborhood despite living there her entire life. Neurological testing suggested that her brain was not damaged, and specific exercises eventually allowed the woman to develop cognitive mapping skills. This seems to suggest that for whatever reason, she simply had never bothered to develop the cognitive mapping skill previously. Maybe her hippocampus is unusually recalcitrant. But Bohbot suspects that our entire culture may be at fault.

She fears that overreliance on GPS, which demands a hyper-pure form of stimulus-response behaviour, 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.”… Bohbot sees the decline in spatial thinking as part of a broader shift toward stimulus-response, reward-linked behaviour. The demand for instant gratification, for efficiency at all costs and productivity as the only measure of value — these sound like the laments of the nostalgist in the Age of the Caudate Nucleus. But here, they’re based on neuroscience. “Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus,” she says. “In the next twenty years, I think we’re going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier.”

So we have that to look forward to. This is of a piece with my oft-aired speculation on this blog that consumerism breeds an unhealthy love of convenience and an overreliance on instrumental thinking — interesting to see that it may have a neurological basis and more severe consequences than one’s being lame. (No fused participles here.)

It’s at this point that some technophiles would protest that, oh, the Luddites said the same thing about calculators ruining our ability to do arithmetic. And does anybody worry about that now? And those worried about Google making us dumber — well, it’s probably making us smarter. But that’s entirely missing the point of maps, which are not so much about showing us the “right answer” of how to get somewhere specific or a neutral-seeming menu of options but about revealing the beauty of geographic logic, the way things connect, along with hints at the deeper reasons for why certain spatial arrangements came about. A map helps us conjure a sense of how any given location is a palimpsest, with layers of history unevenly overlapping each other. Hutchinson has a passage that gets at this quality:

To many, the beauty of the devices is precisely that we no longer have any need to painstakingly assemble those cognitive maps. But Cornell University human-computer interaction researcher Gilly Leshed argues that knowledge of an area means more than just finding your way around. Navigation underlies the transformation of an abstract “space” to a “place” that has meaning and value to an individual. For the GPS users Leshed and her colleagues observed in an ethnographic study, the virtual world on the screens of their devices seemed to blur and sometimes take over from the real world that whizzed by outside. “Instead of experiencing physical locations, you end up with a more abstract representation of the world,” she says.

Without a cognitive map we lack not only the wherewithal to get out of our neighborhood comfortably but a sense of belonging within that neighborhood. We don’t store a sense of connectedness, we don’t achieve a sense of place. So we end up not belonging anywhere, or worse, belonging anywhere we are put, without a protest.