Spatial Orientation and the Brain: The Effects of Map Reading and Navigation

Rebecca Maxwell


The human brain is a remarkable organ. It has the ability to reason, create, analyze, and process tons of information each day.

What is spatial orientation?

The brain also gives humans the ability to move around in an environment using an innate sense of direction. This skill is called spatial orientation, and it is especially useful for finding routes in an unfamiliar place, following directions to another person’s house, or making a midnight raid of the refrigerator in the dark.

Why is spatial orientation important?

Spatial orientation is crucial for adapting to new environments and getting from one point to another. Without it, people will walk around in endless circles, never being able find which way they want to go.

What part of the brain is responsible for spatial orientation?

The brain has a specialized region just for navigating the spatial environment. This structure is called the hippocampus, also known as the map reader of the brain.

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The hippocampus helps individuals determine where they are, how they got to that particular place, and how to navigate to the next destination.

Reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways. In fact, using orientation and navigational skills often can actually cause the hippocampus and the brain to grow, forming more neural pathways as the number of mental maps increase.

The effects of mental maps on brain development

A study by scientists at University College in London found that grey matter in the brains of taxi drivers grew and adapted to help them store detailed mental maps of the city. The drivers underwent MRI scans, and those scans showed that the taxi drivers have larger hippocampi when compared to other people.

In addition, the scientists found that the more time the drivers spent on the job, the more the hippocampus changes structurally to accommodate the large amount of navigational experience. Drivers who spent more than forty years in a taxi had more developed hippocampi than those just starting out.

The study shows that experience with the spatial environment and navigation can have a direct influence on the brain itself.

How GPS and smartphones affect spatial orientation

However, the use of modern navigational technology and smartphone apps has the potential to harm the brain depending on how it is used in today’s world.

Map reading and orienteering are becoming lost arts in the world of global positioning systems and other geospatial technologies. As a result, more and more people are losing the ability to navigate and find their way in unfamiliar terrain.

According to the BBC, police in northern Scotland issued an appeal for hikers to learn orienteering skills rather than relying solely on smartphones for navigation. This came after repeated rescues of lost hikers by police in Grampian, one of which included finding fourteen people using mountain rescue teams and a helicopter.

The police stated that the growing use of smartphone apps for navigation can lead to trouble because people become too dependent on technology without understanding the tangible world around them.

Study on the effects of using GPS devices on the brain

At McGill University, researchers did a series of three studies on the effects of using GPS devices on the brain.

The scientists wanted to measure the brain activity of people while using two methods that humans employ when navigating.

The first method is called spatial navigation, and this is where landmarks are used to build those cognitive maps that help us determine where we are in a particular environment.

The second is called stimulus-response. In this situation, humans run on auto-pilot mode and retrace their steps according to repetition. For example, taking the same route home from work becomes second nature after a while, and sooner or later you find yourself retracing the route out of habit, not thinking about how you got home.

Researchers claimed that this mode is more closely related to the way a GPS is used to navigate.

What researchers found was significant in terms of how spatial orientation affects the brain. After performing fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans on people using both of those strategies, the individuals that used a spatial navigation strategy had an increased activity in the hippocampus.

Conversely, they found that using a GPS excessively might to lead to atrophy in the hippocampus as a person ages, and this could put them at higher risk for cognitive diseases later in life. One of these diseases might be Alzheimer’s which impairs the hippocampus and leads to problems with spatial orientation and memory.

Researchers also found a greater volume of grey matter in those who used spatial navigation, and this group scored higher on standardized cognition tests than those who used the other strategy. The results of this study demonstrate that using orienteering and building cognitive maps might be better for the brain than using a GPS.

Correlation of volume change with time as a taxi driver. (a Left) Sagittal section. (a Right) Coronal section. The VBM group results are shown superimposed onto the scan of an individual subject selected at random. The bar to the right indicates the Z score level. The volume of gray matter in the right hippocampus was found to correlate significantly with the amount of time spent learning to be and practicing as a licensed London taxi driver, positively in the right posterior hippocampus (b) and negatively in the anterior hippocampus (c).
From the journal article; “Correlation of volume change with time as a taxi driver.” This figure takes a look at the changes in the volume of gray matter in taxi drivers over time.  The study found that “the volume of gray matter in the right hippocampus was found to correlate significantly with the amount of time spent learning to be and practicing as a licensed London taxi driver, positively in the right posterior hippocampus (b) and negatively in the anterior hippocampus (c).

GPS and the ability to navigate the surrounding environment

Researchers are now questioning whether modern global positioning systems and advanced maps are doing humans any good.

Studies done by the British Cartographic Society have determined that high-tech maps can get users from Point A to Point B but are falling short compared to traditional paper maps. Old-fashioned printed maps not only show users how to navigate but also give other important information about an area such as historical landmarks, government buildings and cultural institutions.

The fear of using a GPS exclusively is a loss of cultural and geographic literacy. The more humans use GPS, the more cut off from the real world they might become.

GPS versus paper map navigation study

Dr. Toru Ishikawa, a researcher and specialist in human spatial behavior, has done numerous studies on how using a GPS device affects the ability of humans to navigate the surrounding environment.

Ishikawa and colleagues at the University of Tokyo asked three groups of people to find their way through an urban environment on foot using various means of navigation.

One group used a mobile phone with a built-in GPS and another group used a paper map. Researchers actually showed the last group the route they needed to take before navigating on their own.

The study found that the group that used the GPS walked slower, made more stops, and walked farther than the others. They made more errors and took longer to reach their destination.

After their walks, the GPS users also exhibited a poorer knowledge of the terrain, topography, and the routes they took when asked to draw a map. The group shown the route beforehand by researchers did the best in the study.

Benefits of paper maps over GPS for spatial navigation

Researchers who point out the benefits of paper maps claim that using a GPS actually makes it harder for people to navigate.

A GPS device encourages people to stare down at a screen instead of looking around at their environment. The size of GPS screen also means that users cannot view both their location and their destination at the same time.

However, paper maps do not rely on getting a signal, and using a map in conjunction with a compass gives people a better feel for the natural world. Anyone can learn orienteering with a map and compass, no matter what navigational skills they are born with.

Those in favor of paper maps also point on that there is a big difference between precision and accuracy when using a GPS. A device can be precise without being accurate. Anyone who has found themselves in the wrong place but exactly where the GPS told them to go knows what that means.

Using GPS for driving directions

A GPS can only go so far in aiding people with navigation. Barry Brown, co-director of the Mobile Life Center and co-author of a research study called, “The Normal Natural Troubles of Driving with GPS” tells the story of a man from San Diego who flew to the East Coast.

When he arrived, he picked up a rental car outfitted with a GPS but, after twenty minutes of driving, the man sensed he had been headed in the wrong direction. He then realized that he had entered his own California address and that the GPS was leading him 3,000 miles away.

Similarly, according to More Intelligent Life, a magazine from the Economist, Princess Diana’s niece once told a taxi driver to take her Stamford Bridge, a football (soccer) stadium in London. Instead, she ended up 150 miles in the wrong direction in the village of Stamford Bridge.

A GPS cannot always save us from our own human errors.

Benefits of GPS over paper maps

Those in favor of GPS devices argue that in-car navigation systems are most helpful when driving. These digital maps are helpful because they can tell the driver the location of the nearest restaurant or gas station.

Some GPS devices can also help people make contact with friends though location-based social networking. In fact, a Taiwanese study suggested that GPS devices outdid paper maps when it came to driving efficiency.

Effects of GPS on the human brain

However, a study by Barry Brown and the University of California, San Diego found another way in which GPS navigation could be harmful to the human brain. Drivers who use GPS often find that their navigation skills have atrophied. Like any other cognitive skill, map reading and navigation need to be practiced in order to not diminish.

The concern over GPS devices and its effects on the human brain only highlights a greater unease of what technology is doing to critical thinking and memorization. With information only a click away, people are losing their common sense.

Each new innovation of Google Maps only brings about a decrease in basic geographical knowledge. Moreover, there are even apps for people to find what floor they are on in a building as if looking for floor numbers is too difficult.

Researchers, academics, and even hike leaders are becoming concerned that technology is decreasing our mental capacity and observation skills. Then, if technology fails, people will be incapable of determining where they are.

Gender and spatial orientation

Gender also has an important effect on navigation and spatial orientation skills.

Several studies have demonstrated that men and women use different strategies when trying to navigate. A study from the Netherlands asked men and women to find their way back to their cars in a crowded parking lot. As a result, men tended to use more mileage terms when describing the route while women mentioned landmarks more often.

A professor at Utrecht University, Albert Postma, claims that a man’s brain is better suited to precise distances while women focus more on the relationship between objects. Postma stated that differences in spatial orientation, although rather small, are the results of biological differences in the brains between genders but also different learning experiences.

Man reading a street map at a table.
Several studies have analyzed the difference between men and women when it comes to map reading and navigation.

Gender and remembering landmarks during navigation

Another study asked a group of men and women in a Mexican village to gather mushrooms. The researchers fitted them with satellite positioning devices and heart rate monitors.

The study found that the women expended less energy and seemed to know where to go. The women were also more likely to recall their routes using landmarks and retraced their paths to the most productive areas.

Although men are usually better at reading and using maps, women usually get to their destination quicker because they are better at remembering landmarks. Consequently, women are less likely to get lost.

Other studies demonstrate that men and women develop different methods of navigating and orienting themselves to the spatial environment because of differences in roles as hunters and gatherers. This could explain the reason why men get lost in supermarkets while women can find their way around in minutes.

Research done at Queen Mary, University of London demonstrated that men are better at finding hidden objects while women are better at remembering where objects are at.

In addition, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at Kent University, states that women are better at making judgment calls while men tend to overcomplicate the most basic navigational tasks.

The use of map reading and navigating skills to explore the spatial environment can benefit the brain and cause certain areas to grow while the use of modern technology for navigation seems to only hinder the brain.

No matter which strategy men and women use for navigation, it is important to practice those skills and tune into the environment. While technology is a useful tool, in the end the human brain remains the most sophisticated map reader.

This article was first published on March 8, 2013 and has since been modified.


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About the author
Rebecca Maxwell
Rebecca Maxwell is a freelance writer who loves to write about a variety of subjects. She holds a B.A. in History from Boise State University. Rebecca has also been a contributing writer on