How to make my hippocampus grow (or why I rely less on online maps)

hippocampus.jpgEver since I discovered Yahoo maps (seems aeons ago now), I started using it for most of my navigation needs. Not just when going to a new address, I found myself using it for places I have visited before – places in the neighborhood. Its just so convenient, one never gets lost (well, I still get lost – but thats another story).

I have started realizing that I no longer have good generalized learning of a neighborhood. For example, we lived in San Francisco for over a year. I hardly learnt its geography, driving like a robot on its roads – turn right after .02, Bear left on Post.

Maps give you specific Point A to Point B directions – along with exact distance and where to turn. But for generalized familiarity with a neighborhood, one needs to go beyond that specific robotic following of Point A-Point B directions. One needs to take the longer route sometimes, and even get lost once in a while. One needs to logically work out the appropriate directions. One needs to navigate by the landmarks – “head towards tall, red building”, “turn right just after the Chinese restaurant”.

I also had this nagging feeling that my hippocampus was not getting the workout it needed. (Hippocampus is a part of the brain that deals with memory and is shaped like a seahorse). Especially after reading about the London cabbies whose posterior hippocampus showed discernible growth as they spent more time navigating London streets. I decided to look into the matter – how do these London cabbies gain “the knowledge” as it is referred to. Seems like it takes 2-4 years, and knowing the “400 runs” (specific routes) is not enough. One has to be able to provide the most efficient route between two arbitrary points in that area. Also, one has to be familiar with buildings and other places of interest within 1/4th mile of the start and end points!

So this is what it takes to get the hippocampus to grow!

When we moved to Mountain View last year, I decided to stop printing out maps to nearby places. Instead I look at area maps, locate the place and try to work out the directions – in my head. Yes, I try to figure out when to take a left and right and go by my general sense of how long a mile takes. I make a careful note of landmarks. Instead of a robot following, “turn after .2 miles”, I make a mental note that the “right turn” came up immediately after the second light.

I still use directions, when I am going to a new place. And of course I get lost embaressingly often. Now all I need to do is to wait 3-4 years, and find out if like the London cabbies, my hippocampus did grow.

3 thoughts on “How to make my hippocampus grow (or why I rely less on online maps)

  1. So, how do you measure your hippocampus? Have you established a baseline? :)

    I found that I learned to navigate the city after having a child and needing to go not just from my house to anywhere, but from the share care and the pre-school to anywhere. Or maybe it was just being able to find the nearest playground from almost any landmark.

    Interesting to think about how online references can change the way we think. I certainly use the library less often, but now I know all sort of strange facts, like how long snails sleep. I wonder what part of the brain is affected by that.

    Sarah

  2. Given my spatial navigtion abilities, I am sure my hippocampus is pretty small! During grad school, when I went into an MRI machine, it seemed pretty unremarkable.

    I don’t know if the usage of the library and the internet are fundamentally different. Both are knowledge resources – thought I suspect with Google makes you work less hard.

    There are a number of separate cognitive systems in the brain. The one that would be involved in remembering random facts like “how long snails sleep” would be the explicit memory system (also involves the hippocampus).

    The other memory system is called “implicit memory system” which is based in the various cortical areas (the part of the brain with the ridges). That memory system is more involved in unconscious learning, such as picking up patterns from the environment, or remembering that “a snail is a type of an animal” would involve this system. Most knowledge is probably a mesh of the two systems – though the difference between the two systems can be seen very dramatically in amnesia (explicit memory system is damaged, implicit is often intact).

    Then there are other subsystems, for example the one involed in making mathematical calculations. My father is so much better at doing calculations in his head than I am. Like the spatial navigation system, thats another system thats probably underused by people who rely on the computer a lot.

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