How good is your sense of direction?

One of my 21st Birthday presents was a calculator, given to me by my then boyfriend. Pretty exciting, huh? Yes, I thought so too at the time. The thing was, calculators were just coming in to regular use and it was actually a big deal having one’s own pocket calculator. Not that it would have fitted into a pocket, as it was the size of a brick.

At the time, some people were expressing concern about their introduction saying it would erode our ability to do maths. In my case as someone who could never do maths it meant I might actually get the answers right from time to time.

Now it is hard to imagine not having a calculator to either do the sums for us or to double check we have the correct answer.

Today, I now hear similar concerns being expressed about the use of other technologies such as the GPS, the “must have” navigation tool in our cars to allow us to get to our required destination. Now that I have to put my reading glasses on to be able to read the street names on the map, maybe that’s not such a bad thing either. Or is it?

Maps have traditionally been used to help us get from our current location to a new point that we weren’t familiar with. This could be finding a particular store in an unfamiliar suburb, or negotiating around different towns when on holiday.

But how many people now have their Tom-Tom® or GPS “on” all the time even when driving familiar routes?

When we are finding our way from point A to point B we can use visual cues such as landmarks, to help orientate ourselves and work out where to go. This is called spatial navigation strategy. Or we can use our sense of "autopilot" turning left and right in a series of repetitions to get to our destination. This is similar to what we experience when using a GPS.

Researchers from McGill University have been conducting studies using fMRI scans to show that when we use landmarks as cues i.e. our spatial navigation system, we activate our hippocampus, the area of our brain that is involved in memory and navigation, and how we can devise short cuts and new routes.

As we age, our brain appears to look for less effort. Studies have shown that younger brains tend to spontaneously use the spatial approach, while older brains go for the response strategy.

This change may not be good for us. Our hippocampus is one of the first areas to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease where we lose the ability to orientate ourselves in space and also develop memory problems.

More studies now indicate that if we continue to practice using our spatial memory, then we may be able to maintain our hippocampal function as we age. Those who practice spatial strategies maintain a greater amount of grey matter in the hippocampus and perform better on standardised cognitive testing. Associate Prof Veronique Bohbot from McGill University has suggested that we use spatial memory techniques as a means of building cognitive reserve.

So you don't have to toss your GPS into the bin. However, maybe it is a good idea to turn it off for routine driving routes and use it only “as needed”. Taking those extra couple of minutes to work out your route and using visual cues will keep your brain working better for longer.

(From studies presented by McGill University Montreal, Quebec, at the Annual Society of Neuroscience Meeting 2010.)