Turning on a sat nag 'turns off' navigation centres in the brain, claims research
New findings suggest that activity in the area of the brain responsible for memory and navigation drops when motorists switch on the devices.
And they say this could mean that when it comes to navigational skills, it is likely a case of “use it or lose it”.
Researchers from the University College London (UCL) recruited 24 volunteers to navigate a simulation of Soho, central London.
While the participants attempted to find ways though the city, the scientists studied their brain activity and in particular the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
The hippocampus is involved in memory and navigation while the prefrontal cortex assists with planning and decision-making.
The researchers also mapped London's complex network of streets to understand how the brain regions reacted to them.
When volunteers went it alone and entered new streets, the team saw spikes of activity in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
This brain activity was even greater when the number of roads to choose from increased.
Our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us
Dr Hugo Spiers
But when the volunteers relied on satnavs, there was no additional activity to be recorded.
Study author Dr Hugo Spiers, of UCL, said: “Entering a junction such as Seven Dials in London, where seven streets meet, would enhance activity in the hippocampus, whereas a dead-end would drive down its activity.
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“If you are having a hard time navigating the mass of streets in a city, you are likely putting high demands on your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex."
Activity in areas of the brain responsible for memory and navigation drop when a sat nav is used
And the results, published in Nature Communications, add weight to previous ideas on how these two brain regions work together to help us navigate.
Dr Spiers said: “Our results fit with models in which the hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination.
“When we have technology telling us which way to go, however, these parts of the brain simply don't respond to the street network. In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”
In an earlier study, UCL researchers revealed how the hippocampi of black cabbies' expended as they studied 'the Knowledge'.
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London cabbies are required to take this test to show they can memorise the streets and landmarks of London.
The latest study suggests that drivers who follow satnav directions do not engage their hippocampus, likely limiting any learning of the city street network.
The team have also studied the street networks of major cities around the world to visualise how easy they may be to navigate.
With its complex network of small streets, London appears to be particularly taxing on the hippocampus.
But across the pond, much less mental effort may be needed to navigate Manhattan in New York.
With its grid layout, at most junctions you can only go straight, left or right.
Dr Beatrix Emo, who led the city street analysis at UCL and now works at ETH Zurich, says: “Linking the structure of cities to behaviour has been around since the 1980s, but this is the first study to reveal the impact of that structure on the brain.”
Dr Spiers is now on secondment as Director of Science at The Centric Lab, a consultancy and research organisation in London that uses neuroscience to inform building and city design.
He said: “The next step for our lab will be working with smart tech companies, developers, and architects to help design spaces that are easier to navigate and increase wellbeing.
Researchers suggest this could result in a lose of navigation ability
“Our new findings allow us to look at the layout of a city or building and consider how the memory systems of the brain may likely react.
“For example, we could look at the layouts of care homes and hospitals to identify areas that might be particularly challenging for people with dementia and help to make them easier to navigate.
“Similarly, we could design new buildings that are dementia-friendly from the outset."
Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi, who led the brain imaging analysis at UCL said: “Understanding how the environment affects our brain is important.
“My research group is now exploring how physical and cognitive activity affect brain activity in a positive way. Satnavs clearly have their uses and their limitations.”