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?
In fact the study of London taxi drivers2 showed that the longer they had been driving the larger the hippocampus became.
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?
8/5 – REVISION – Reworded some parts of the article and corrected some minor problems. KR