Deakin Communicating Science 2016

EES 200/101


The effects of navigation on grey matter volume by Kristian Ruuska.

The ability to store and process spatial information if a fundamental part of everyday life. This ability is different in each of us, and even though devices such as GPS or a phone with Google maps on it make our lives easier, this practice might actually be reducing our abilities even further.

Scientists have for a long time studied the hippocampus region of the brain and and have identified it as being responsible for our navigation and spatial awareness.

This however is not only related to humans as the hippocampus region in all animals is quite significant. In smaller animals, when compared to their total body size, the hippocampus region is relatively large. This indicates that this region is an important region, and this is logical as all animals must be able to navigate to survive.

The link between hippocampus size and spatial awareness has been demonstrated in a recent study1 which showed that mice with a larger hippocampus were able to navigate a basic maze (which they had previously learned) much more accurately than mice who had a smaller hippocampus.


Figure 1 – Example of the maze used during navigation (Brown et al., 2014)

However, does having a larger hippocampus give us better navigation abilities, or does regular navigation increase the size of the hippocampus?

MRIs of the brains of London taxi drivers (renowned for their navigation ability) have shown that when compared to an average citizen the hippocampus is significantly larger.

In fact the study of London taxi drivers2 showed that the longer they had been driving the larger the hippocampus became.                 SCAN

Figure 2 – Correlation of volume change with time as a taxi driver. (Macguire et al., 2000)

But, why do I want to navigate if a phone or GPS can do it for me?

A comparison of how people navigated short courses3 has shown that those who know the area or those who are using a map will navigate from the start to the goal quicker, and in a shorter distance than those who are using a GPS.

It was also found that the GPS users lacked awareness of what direction they had come from and they were also unable to produce a very good map of the route that took them from the start to the finish when asked later.


Figure 3 – Map of the study area. “S” Represents the starting point for each route and “G” indicates the Goal for each route. (Ishikawa et al., 2008)

So, navigation can increase the volume of your hippocampus, enabling you to arrive at your destination quicker, and to have a better idea of where you are.

It is possible that our continued reliance on electronic devices can also have the effect of shrinking the hippocampus, ultimately leaving us reliant on these devices.

Maybe it’s time to put away the devices and to go back to way that we used to do things?

  1. Brown, T, Whiteman, A, Aselcioglu, I & Stern, C 2014, ‘Structural Differences in Hippocampal and Prefrontal Gray Matter Volume Support Flexible Context-Dependent Navigation Ability’, The Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 2314-2320, doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2202-13.2014
  2. Ishikawa, T, Fujiwara, H, Imai, O & Okabe, A 2008, ‘Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience’, The Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 28, pp. 74-82, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.09.002
  3. Maguire, E, Gadian, D, Johnsrude, I, Good, C, Ashburner, J, Frackowiak, R & Frith, C 2000, ‘Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers’,  PNAS, vol. 97, no. 8, pp. 4398-4403, doi:10.1073/pnas.070039597

8/5 – REVISION – Reworded some parts of the article and corrected some minor problems. KR


4 comments on “USE IT OR LOSE IT

  1. nezarsharaf
    April 21, 2016

    Hi Kris,
    This was a very interesting blog, it was really good learning about the hippocampus. I never knew that it was the region of the brain that is responsible for our navigation. while i was reading the blog i was able to relate to it. whenever i use the GPS and reach the destination, i usually don’t remember the route that i have taken. However when i drive to places with no GPS i tend to remember the route easily. The graphs and photos made the blog more interesting to read especially the photo of the taxi drivers and the size of their hippocampus. I’ll make sure that i put away the devices and go back to the way that we used to do things.



    • kruuska
      April 21, 2016

      Thanks Nezar,
      It’s good to hear that you were able to relate (as I hope a lot of people might be able to.)
      Hopefully you gain a benefit from relying less on GPS devices.


  2. Adam
    April 28, 2016


    Nice blog! A have a particular interest in this topic because I have done some research into the area, specifically in birds.

    I think this is well written and well structured. I would strongly suggest getting someone to check spelling and grammar, I found a few mistakes. Also, you could cut out a fair bit of ‘junk’ in your sentences. This is something I often struggle with too but try to be concise, e.g. “This indicates that this region is an important region”

    Could be:
    “This indicates the importance of the hippocampus for navigation”


  3. kruuska
    May 8, 2016

    Thanks Adam,
    I have made a couple of changes to address the issues that you outlined. It does read better now.
    I am glad that you enjoyed reading it, and that the content must have been consistent with the research tat you had also done.


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This entry was posted on April 15, 2016 by in Burwood - Thursday 2pm and tagged .

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