How Technology Is Shrinking Your Brain - Importance of Using Our Spatial Memory
Functions of the Hippocampus:
The hippocampus is involved in several functions of the body including:
- Consolidation of New Memories
- Emotional Responses
- Spatial Orientation
About Spatial Memory
Spatial memory is a general phrase that refers to memory for spatial information, such as the geographical layout of your hometown or the interior of a friend's house.
We use spatial strategy when we build mental maps using associations between landmarks to help us determine where we are, but also help us plan where we want to go, finding shortcuts when going to new destinations.
Help! My hippocampus is shrinking!
How to Increase Spatial Memory
So, to prevent losing my mind to a low efficiency hippocampus, I started to do the following:
- When the route it’s not too long or complicated, I look up the directions online, visualize them, and then try to get there based on what I remember or from notes I took of the directions (and printouts).
- As an alternative to the above, before hitting Go to destination on the GPS, I zoom out until I see the complete route highlighted, I get a visual idea of what direction I'll be moving and which streets I'll drive on, then I push Go .
- If I need to use the GPS to go somewhere, I try at least to get back on my own. OK, I’m not telling about the times I doubled the time it should have taken me to get back, the important thing is that I made it home eventually, and all on my own.
- I try to do memory games and brain puzzles - you can’t have enough stimulation of your gray matter!
- I also eat healthy and exercise, they say it helps with memory as well, but I was already doing that before the noticing my loss of spatial memory.
Until a few years ago it was normal and necessary to have a paper road map in the car at all times, I used to plan my route looking at them.
The cool part is that I only had to do it on my way to the destination; on the way back I would usually find the route back on my own, relying on my memory and intuition. And I thought that was normal.
I Used to Remember My Way to Places
For years I fought the idea of purchasing a GPS even when sometimes I’d get lost in the middle of nowhere and my husband was making fun of me.
Back then, returning to a place, not matter how remote, I would remember how to get there. Because the first time I went I had created a visual memory of directions and landmarks on the way.
Now I Get Lost
A few years ago I caved in. We moved to a new city in a different State, and I felt like I needed serious help to make sense of all the unknown highways and streets crisscrossing town, so I bought a GPS.
I thought I would use it only for emergencies or first time ever trips to places. How delusional.
Gradually I started to rely on the GPS more and more, until I now realize that for some particular places that I visit seldom yet regularly, I have to set the GPS every single time, because I always get confused at certain intersections and get lost.
It got even worse when I got a smart phone. The map app is even more reliable than my old GPS because it gets real time info about road work and traffic.
What Happened to My Brain?
Is it possible that my mind is getting so lazy that it prefers to set the techy co-pilot rather than spend energy figuring out the route?
What happened to the me that was good with maps and directions? - Of course if you ask my husband he would tell you that she never existed, but that’s just because a couple of times he had to give me directions on the phone, while I was reading street signs to him lost in some unknown countryside, and he was looking them up on mapquest and figuring my way home. Quite a sorry situation, but it did not happen often, I swear.
I used to get a clear visual map of my itinerary in my head, and based on that get in the car and drive my way to my destination, with no second thoughts. Sure, sometimes I did print out directions from online, but the nice thing was to see the big picture.
Now, with the GPS telling me what’s ahead only until the next turn, I lost the big vision, and every trip sets a blurry memory of turns and landmarks that do not form a cohesive picture. It’s all foggy in my mind.
About Loss of Spatial Memory
One day I was so fed up of this feeling of fogginess when trying to figure out a route on my own, that I did some research on the effect of the GPS on the brain.
Sure enough, and quite disappointingly I have to admit, I found confirmation of my fears. According to Véronique Bohbot, PhD. at McGill University, using the GPS regularly does damage your brain, specifically relying on the GPS all the time for finding your way around, can cause atrophy of the Hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in navigation and spatial memory.
And this was not the worst news! Apparently the atrophy of the Hippocampus, with related loss of spatial memory, is typically one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and it’s also very common in dementia due to a normal aging process.
Now, I’m not saying the GPS causes Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I’m just reporting that the symptoms of overuse of GPS are somehow similar to those diseases. And I figured that if I am meant to get those, using the GPS will only quicken the process.
I freaked out. “I’m in my forties and I have symptoms that could possibly be the anteroom to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Because of the little black talking box?” Boy, was I scared.
Something needed to be done.
More Memory Research: the London Taxi Drivers
As if that information was not enough, I also found literature about a study on the hippocampi of long time London cab drivers. Their hippocampi were much larger than those of regular people, and they activate specifically when the taxi driver is asked to use spatial memory, and do not activate if asked for information about landmarks.
A definite proof that planning your own itinerary and finding shortcuts does keep you hippocampus healthy and active.
Success: Memory Improvement
Forcing myself to live a non-GPS-dependent life is helping. I feel like my brain is slowly starting to be clearer and I acquired a better view of my city's geographical layout.
The only side effect has been that finding my own route led to higher gas costs and more time behind the wheel, due to some, ehm... trial and error strategic itineraries. But some day I'll be like the London's cab drivers, with a hippocampus all plump and active, and no need to look at maps. I just have to keep working the hard way instead of relying totally on technology.
- The Douglas Institute, www.douglas.qc.ca
- Annenberg learner, www.learner.org
- Maguire, E., R. Frackowiak, and C. Firth. 1997. Recalling routes around London: Activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers. J. Neuroscience
© 2012 Robie Benve