A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2016 Apr 20, 18:56 -0700
Bob Goethe, you wrote:
"it is possible that electronic navigation is triggering the shrinking the portion of our brain reponsible for our "vestigial evolutionary ability". Our innate ability to navigate may be atrophying."
A lot of this goes back to a study of the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers who "do the Knowledge".
First, an ad: Some years ago, I started watching a strange little progenitor of the reality tv show known as the "Up series". It's an asonishing documentary film series that has followed the lives of a dozen or so from age 7 in Britain in 1964. Every seven years like clockwork since then, they have been interviewed again to see how they're doing. Originally conceived as a display of the effects of differing socio-economic backgrounds and the British "class" system, it evolved into something much more profound and also much simpler: a portrait of lives, a story of humanity with no heavy-handed political message. It's nearly all directed and propelled forward by Michael Apted. I highly recommend it. That's just a little evangelizing about a nice piece of art.
Among the dozen+ subjects of the "Up series" is a guy named Tony who starts out as an eager little boy wanting to be a jockey. We see him grooming and riding horses as a teenager, but he finds no success. Then he decides to "do the Knowledge" and become a London cabbie. To do this cabbies must memorize London's many thousands of complicated streets, changing names almost at every block, and learn routes through every corner of the metropolis. In "21 Up" filmed c.1977, we see Tony riding around on a motorbike learning this great mass of information. It's a formidable task, but in later episodes we see that he has succeeded and prospered.
Brain imaging shows that London cabbies who learn this "Knowledge" display changes in the hippocampus. The anterior hippocampus gets smaller, and the posterior hippocampus gets slightly larger. Of course, we all like the idea of things in our brains getting bigger, and we'll just ignore that shrinkage at the other end of this neural lump. The implication is simple and easily translated for mass consumption: these cabbies are building up their brain muscle! So clearly that's a good thing, right? And naturally if they do the obvious thing and switch to GPS nav systems which would allow vastly more people to qualify for the simple job of driving people around town, then this will lead to brain "atrophy". Oh the horror! Can't have that.
All of this "brain science" talk feeds directly into the trendy notion that technology is bad for you, and "these kids today" are worse than us because they have too many toys and too much ease in their lives. Have you kicked your Millennial today?? But is GPS navigation of cars and other transport around our cities and highways a bad thing?? Consider the huge amounts of time that people used to waste getting lost or just puttering around trying to find a destination. Consider that today a dramatically larger fraction of the population can get from point A to point B than could do so just twenty years ago. This is a tremendously valuable, enabling technology! Should we worry that our hippocampuses might be shaped a bit differently? I would suggest no more so than we should worry that our biceps are not as big as the ditch-diggers of a hundred years ago. We're not worse off today because manual labor is less valuable than it used to be. We're better off. And to carry the analogy further, we can now exercise our brains, if we wish, at our leisure and on tasks that appeal to us, much as we can go to gyms to get those biceps built up (people do that... so I hear). And after all, if technology is withering our native ability to navigate, then surely we better throw away our maps and charts and all elements not found on the savanna-home of early Homo sapiens. It's not just the GPS. Everything invented in the past 10,000 years is frying our brains!!
Well, enough of that for now. I'm off to dinner. Wooly mammoth steak sounds tasty for tonight...