Where are we going?

Let’s do an exercise. From where you are right at this moment, can you point to North?

Now check your answer. How’d you do? Were you clueless? Off by a little? Dead on?

Navigating by cardinal directions is one of the primary methods of wayfinding, but many of us don’t bother to keep track of which direction North is. Some of us do. Others follow paths which they’ve learned over weeks or months and which have, by now, become habit. Lately, cognitive researchers have been questioning whether the advent of technology, particularly mobile technology will have an influence over the way we consume and use information. Spatial navigation is no exception.

Maps and GPS devices are one of the most fundamental applications of mobile technology; probably more so than the actual telephone features of smart “phones”. We, as a society, have come to depend on constant access to our current location, our immediate destination, and the route from here to there. Maintaining a spatial representation of our environment is not only unnecessary, it’s a waste of mental time and effort.

Not everyone feels this way, and the alternative viewpoint has been receiving a lot of attention in the popular press lately. In an article in the Boston Globe last week, well-known spatial navigation researcher Veronique Bohbot explained that she has given up GPS, in part to exercise areas of the brain which are heavily involved in wayfinding like the hippocampus. John Huth, Harvard physicist and recent author of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, decries the lack of modern attention to alternative navigation methods as being less in tune with our environment. Huth’s accessible and fascinating book details the myriad ways our evolutionary ancestry devised to navigate, attending to cues like snow drifts, wind direction, and configuration of stars and constellations. He advocates reflecting on this history, and using it as insight into how we have lost touch with the environment we must find our way around.

As animals evolved to live in a spatial world, large portions of human psychology are involved in maintaining an awareness of where we are in space and where we are going. How important is this skill today, when maps and routes are omnipresent? If we don’t exercise our navigation ability, will other areas of our cognition suffer? Or will relying on technology free our minds to focus on more important things? These are deep and emerging questions in cognitive science today that have no simple answer. My personal opinion is that navigation is an important skill, and a way to become more in touch with my environment. I’m increasingly trying to use my GPS not as a crutch but as a tool to explore my world further.

How do you use your GPS? Blindly or with an eye toward learning? Do you think it’s important to learn how to navigate or something, like calculators can do for arithmetic, best left to technology?

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