In today’s world, where Google Maps is a button away, we rarely take the time to wander through our surroundings. Perhaps this is why the above sign caught my attention so dramatically. Mobile technology has made our world less ambiguous and much more direct. Although it may guide us through an unfamiliar neighbourhood efficiently, I’m not sure we’ve fully considered the implications technology has on our experience of place. With highly effective indoor mapping just around the corner, it’s important to consider how such technology subverts how we think and how our brains work.
Our mobile devices have become “the brain in [our] pocket”; forming a complex web of relationships between us and our environment. Unfortunately, rather than allowing us to connect with our environments, they often transport us to a world where the physical surroundings don’t exist. Rather than being present in the environment, we instead look into the environment, through our devices. In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet has fractured our ability to think deeply. So, if the Internet changed how we think, then the rise of mobile technology has shattered how we experience the environment. Thinking deeply and engaging fully with our spaces has become unnecessary – one can simply grab their phone, look it up and just keep moving.
Such shallow experiences deny us from forming a meaningful mental model of our environment. So even though we make it to our destination successfully, we know little about what is around us. Even when we’re not actively using mobile apps to navigate our environment, other apps devour our precious cognitive resources. Between posting a photo on Instagram, watching a Snapchat video, or updating a Facebook status, our surroundings are fighting a losing battle for our attention. As any of us who have tried to navigate an unfamiliar environment while responding to a text message will know, our cognitive and perceptual systems are woefully limited.
In fact, we don’t even have to be using the device for technology to shape how we think. In a series of experiments, researchers identified that smartphones lead to “brain drain” – participants performed more poorly on a number of cognitive tasks when their smartphones were placed on the table beside them or in their pocket, as opposed to when the smartphone was in another room. If the mere presence of a smartphone can impact how our brains work, the effect of mobile applications on our interactions with the environment is bound to be powerful.
The brains of London taxi drivers support this need for active engagement with our environments beautifully. As compared to the average Londoner, London taxi drivers have a larger hippocampus, a brain region responsible for spatial memory. Remarkably, due to the rigorous training they undergo in order to become licensed, not only do they develop a deep spatial understanding of London, but the brain region responsible for such knowledge grows in size! This brain region, the hippocampus is not only necessary for us to navigate and understand our surroundings, but decreased hippocampal volume may predict development of mental health disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
Thus it is in our best interest to use our hippocampus as much as possible – and no, it’s not necessary for all of us to move to London and step behind the steering wheel of a city taxi. As we naturally explore and move through our environment, the hippocampus is alive and well, but as soon as we lift Google Maps to our faces, its activity grinds to a halt. Instead, the simple turn-by-turn instructions provided by Google Maps and other navigation applications activate the caudate nucleus, a brain region responsible for procedural memory below the level of consciousness, such as tying your shoes. Additionally, the caudate is part of the brain’s reward-circuitry, perhaps explaining why using GPS is often so much more enjoyable than stumbling through an unfamiliar environment.
Although two brains might indeed be better than one, it’s important to note that if we rely on the brain in our pocket rather than the one in our head, our experience of the environment will be dramatically diluted. So let us take some time to meander – never mind what we might find -- our minds and brains might depend on it!