Thursday, August 22, 2013

GPS Erodes our Wayfinding Skills

Animals have had to negotiate their way in the world (wayfinding) for millions upon millions of years. Our navigational circuitry is both old and sophisticated. There's evidence now that using GPS devices degrades our ability to get around in the world:
One particular advantage of building these mental maps is that they allow people to be spontaneous and flexible in how they get around: “If all you know is, ‘I have to turn left at the church, then right at McDonald’s,’ then you can reproduce the route, but you are not able to very flexibly navigate from Point A to Point B,” said Frankenstein. That means you can never deviate from the route you know, look for shortcuts, or improvise if the situation calls for it.

With the arrival of personal GPS devices in cars or phones, the tough cognitive work involved in mental mapping was suddenly rendered less necessary. Gary Burnett, an associate professor in the engineering department at the University of Nottingham in England, wanted to know what effect that actually had on people’s ability to navigate. In 2005, he set up an experiment using a driving simulator in which test subjects were asked to complete a set of four routes. Half of them were given step-by-step instructions that guided them right to their destination, while the other half were given traditional paper maps. Afterward they were quizzed on what they’d seen, and asked to sketch a rough map of their route. The drivers who had merely followed instructions did significantly worse on all fronts. They even failed to recognize that they’d been led past certain places twice from different angles.

What GPS was doing, in other words, was letting people just pass their surroundings by, instead of assembling a picture of where they’d been.
Making mistakes is good. As the saying goes, we learn from our mistakes:
Ironically, one of the main reasons for this is that GPS largely prevents us from making mistakes — and when we do mess up, it patiently helps us find our way back. That means we’re never pushed to do the difficult work of recalculating for ourselves. “When you make mistakes, not only does that mean your exposure to the environment is longer — and that helps you learn more things — you also become more engaged in the task,” said Burnett. “When you miss a turn, you become more focused on analyzing what just happened and where you are and what you need to do.”
I find this particularly interesting:
According to Bohbot, mental mapping — and spatial memory more generally — helps us in more ways than we might think. When a waiter at a restaurant brings six dishes out from the kitchen, for instance, he invokes a mental map of the table to remember who ordered what. When going on a vacation, a family is likely to do a better job of packing if they map out every phase of it in their minds, imagining all the places they are likely to find themselves during the trip. “My students use spatial memory when they study for their exams,” Bohbot said. “They put pages in different places around them on the floor, and the spatial position becomes associated with the specific topic they’re studying.”
In Beethoven's Anvil (pp. 135-141) I've argued that the brain's navigational circuitry is used to guide us through musical "space".

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