Ever 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.