If you’ve ever wondered whether our increased access to information through electronic devices is good or bad for our brains, you’re certainly not alone.
One type of information commonly consumed via device is geographic location and wayfinding. While it seems like it would be a good thing that humans can now use devices to find their way through any city in just about any country, research shows that our newfound reliance on global positioning systems (GPS) may be having a negative impact on our brains.
How the Brain Finds Its Way
The human brain’s ability to create mental maps is an example of spatial orientation, a skill essential to adapting to new environments or those where visibility is limited. The part of the brain that specializes in spatial orientation is the hippocampus, an area of the brain now believed to be heavily involved in the formation of new memories and learning.
By developing navigational skills and learning to read maps, we can encourage the formation of new neural pathways in the brain and challenge the hippocampus with the task of creating new mental maps that allow us to not only retrace our steps, but figure out where to go next. It’s complex cognitive work that is necessary for brains to master spatial orientation and can spur growth in the hippocampus.
While having a big hippocampus hasn’t necessarily been proven to be beneficial, the opposite has proven to be problematic. A smaller hippocampus is often tied to recurrent depression as well as atrophy in this area of the brain, according to a study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
Atrophy of the hippocampus is important, particularly for older adults, as it may lead to forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is the impairment of memory and in particular, the ability to form new memories. It’s an area of the brain associated not just with spatial orientation, but autobiographical memory and our ability to consider what lies ahead as well.
Mental acuity is another aspect effected by the reliance on GPS. As the brain is trained to find its way through the use of paper maps, other skills are being developed that are not only useful to us in the physical world, but also help us maintain high level functions in our brains, such as the ability to improvise or problem solve.
Additionally, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with decision making skills, is not activated in the same way as when wayfinding. This lack of activity has a cost associated with it in the form of gray matter, or the density of brain cells in a particular region of the brain. Studies suggest that those who are forced to find their own way have larger amounts of gray matter than those who don’t. One study used the example of London cab drivers, who are challenged to memorize maps of the city, having larger amounts of gray matter in their brains than bus drivers who follow set routes.
Wayfinding for Older Adults
While many older adults struggle with wayfinding, those who don’t live in senior communities can take inspiration from the design of such communities. You may have noticed that many senior communities have a different look from other parts of town. This is done intentionally to provide visual cues that can guide older adults along their route.
A paper from the Department of Health and Human Services notes that older adults often struggle with focusing their visual attention, and outlines five principles that should be adhered to in designing signs, but that can also provide older adults with guidelines of what to look for in a landmark or sign when trying to create visual cues that will help them remember or find their way. They are:
- Distinctiveness- Easy to recognize compared to other signage and in the surrounding environment
- Isolation- Located a reasonable distance from other signs
- Simplicity- Contains a digestible amount of information
- Consistency- Features, imagery and placement of signs are consistent
- Reassurance- Additional signage along the route that reassures the person they are traveling in the right direction.
For elderly patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment should attempt to develop a keen eye for signage of a specific type, according to a study published in the journal Environment and Behavior.
The study tested elderly patients with these conditions over the course of two days in navigating a virtual environment. They were broken into two groups, with one group being exposed to standard signage containing no extra cues, while the others were exposed to conditions described as “salient,” which involved “colorful, memorable cues located at important decision points along the journey. The results indicated that the salient group did much better in the wayfinding test. While it may not be all you need to exercise your wayfinding abilities, older adults should focus on salient cues along a journey to help them build new internal maps and find their way easier and quicker regardless of age.