November 18, 2016

Will Wandering Make Your Brain Beefier?

Do you want to know how to become famous in Iceland, without starting a band? Get lost. Really lost. That’s what Noel Santillan experienced when he ended up driving nearly 240 miles off course because of a single letter missing in the address he entered. Ironically, the person to break the news had a name that’s pronounced like the lady many of us know: Sirry

Noel Santillan, possibly the world’s most
famous man who refused to ask for directions.

After ending up in a tiny fishing village rather than Reykjavik, he learned that national, then international media outlets wanted to hear his story. He went from an American seeking solace after a painful breakup to being a media sensation, the whole country it seems turning out to show him their lovely home.

GPS navigation has, in quick order, gone from expensive indulgence to ubiquitous resource. While it has proved quite helpful in many cases, making a new city manageable, a commute quicker, and a wicked cup of local coffee more readily at hand, there are real consequences to over-reliance on it. We’ve all heard the horror stories of people getting stranded up obscure mountain roads and the like, but here’s the clincher you may want to take note of: It could shrink your brain!

Yep, you read right. According to this piece in Outside, rats, then people were found to be building a representation of their surroundings in their brains “that function like a cognitive map.” In recent, Nobel Prize winning research, a trio of scientists were able to physically identify what they called place cells and grid cells.

They go on to say that, “Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains.”

Excuse me?

Yes. A University College of London study confirmed what we know to be true: Our cabbies are wizards. Their near intuitive navigation of our frightfully complex city is a result of brains built up by years of intimate relationship with London’s labyrinthine streets. Their hippocampi have been proven to grow larger, as has the density of gray matter. Do read the rest of “Is Your GPS Scrambling Your Brain?”, it’s rather fascinating.

While it’s not yet directly confirmed, the reverse may well prove to be true for those of us mere mortals who are largely dependent on GPS to get around. We aren’t building the cognitive maps that give us inherent confidence in our ability to get around, and the resulting puny hippocampus may lead to a quicker onset of Alzheimers.

Oh my.

Given what we learned, we’ve been making a point to switch off the machine GPS, and use our own. We may have to go up a hat size, but we can, um, navigate our way around that issue as it arises.

We see our devices as a nifty bridge between fully manual and fully automated navigation. GPS helps point the way to the ultimate destination, but you get to fill in the space between where you stand and where you’re headed. Happy brain building!

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