Thursday, September 30, 2010

GPS and Your Brain: Do You Know Where You're Going, Or Just How to Get There?

Nearly all of us have an innate ability to navigate. But there are the few hundred known cases of what neurologists call "developmental topographical disorientation" (DTP), or the inability to get from here to there, even if "there" is right around the corner. This very good article, "Global Impositioning Systems," by Canadian journalist Alex Hutchinson, in The Walrus, looks at the work of neuroscientists studying DTP to learn how most of us navigate most of the time.

The piece poses there are two main navigational approaches or techniques and that while we employ both, everyone leans more heavily on one or the other. The first, which relies more on activity in the hippocampus, constructs cognitive maps based on relationships between landmarks. People who use the second, which plugs into the caudate nucleus, develop and memorize instructions (e.g. turn right at the ice skating rink and then left at the cheesesteak place). The former, hippocampus-based way, Hutchinson says, is versatile and generalizable. The second strategy, learning directions, works okay, unless the cheesesteak place is bought out by a Starbucks...which is pretty likely. Reading between the lines, Hutchinson is suggesting that people adopt the first strategy don't just know how to get from a to b, they actually know where they are, and where they're going.

The more we rely on GPS systems, Hutchinson's sources say, the less exercise the hippocampus-based system gets. Brain images show exercise of the  hippocampus makes it grow. Neglect makes it shrink.

The take home message: over-reliance on GPS may get us there, but at the cost of knowing where it's at.

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