By Tracy Cozzens
I love maps. As a child, I was my family’s designated navigator on car trips (or my parents indulged me!).
I studied our roadmaps, searching out each legend icon on the map and finding icons to look up on the legend. I would use the map’s indicators to determine the distance between points and interesting landmarks. I was such a map fanatic, that I spent time one summer recreating in a large size a map of the Ancient Roman Empire. My father asked why. I had no real answer, except that I love history and maps.
Today, some experts are warning that our ability to read and interpret maps might be in jeopardy because of our reliance on GPS devices. Some GPS-reliant drivers make massive blunders, such as a Syrian truck driver who ended up in Gibraltar Point, England, rather than Gibraltar on the south coast of Spain.
Former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation Roger McKinlay told Vox reporter Brad Plumer that our reliance on GPS might be causing our innate navigational capabilities to atrophy over time, which is a problem when our smartphones will only ever be as “smart” as the humans using them.
“Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains have two different specialized systems for navigation,” Plumer writes. “In one system, located in our hippocampus, we create spatial maps of the world around us, understanding how different streets and routes fit together. In the second, located in the caudate nucleus, we make a mental list of the different landmarks we encounter every day.”
By not figuring out routes using maps, and relying solely on turn-by-turn directions, our ability to work out spatial maps and determine our place in the natural world seems to worsen.
“McKinlay argues that schools should teach students map-reading and navigation as a critical life skill,” writes Plumer. “He also suggests that researchers start looking at whether there are ways to design GPS systems so that they help us learn about our environment rather than making us unaware of the world around us. (It’s unclear what exactly this would look like, but what if, as a default, these systems always walked us through the spatial map of where we were going?)”
This map lover is all for it.