Thinking allowed — 29 June 2018

When learning The Knowledge, maps were indispensable. A huge A-Z was pinned to the wall, enabling one to pin two places and running a cotton between them to find the shortest route. A pocket-sized Collins Superscale, with its vast index, was essential when riding around London. I even possessed a map which showed every illegal left and right turn, and another with famous buildings drawn upon it at the appropriate spot.

SO IT WAS WITH CONCERN I recently heard of a current Knowledge boy using today’s technology upon his scooter. He proudly displayed a compass the size of an orange, a traditional Knowledge board, an iPhone running Memory Map, multiple action camera points, a global tracker linked to his Mac back home and a 12inch iPad Pro in the back box.

So what’s wrong with using a SatNav to negotiate oneself around London? Well, everything apparently. We are particularly good at developing ‘mental maps’ of an area, which improve with use.

Research has found London cabbies had an enlarged hippocampus in the brain, developed from its excessive use is nothing new. In the 1940s, the psychologist Edward C. Tolman used rats in mazes to demonstrate that ‘learning consists not in stimulus-response connections but in the building up in the nervous system of sets which function like cognitive maps’.

When exploring an area, without a SatNav getting your attention, we perceive landmarks, remembering their position along the route and the spatial relationship between the streets. The brain stores this in the form of a mental map and has the ability to overlay each spatial map upon another, thereby giving the traveller confidence to find shortcuts, detours or just a favourite scenic route.

Julia Frankenstein of Darmstadt Technical University in Germany had 26 residents from Tübingen navigate a 3-dimensional model of their town wearing head-mounted displays. They were then asked to point to well-known locations not visible from their current position. Incredibly all participants were more accurate indicating the direction when facing north; the very start point on most maps, and were less accurate when facing further away from that direction.

In Japan walkers using GPS got to their destinations more slowly than those using a conventional paper map. The GPS users experienced a reduced sense of place. As humans we have to face the fact that mentally we are lazy, most would rather watch TV’s diet of drivel than engage in understanding a programme titled Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.

Our brain tries to decrease the amount of information being stored, which, of course, is the appeal of GPS. But surely it’s better to have an understanding of our place within the urban environment. Just around the corner could be an exquisite building just waiting to be explored, or a small green space to get solitude.

While others are looking at a blue dot superimposed upon a crude map on their phone, and because of the high buildings in the vicinity, it’s giving them an inaccurate signal telling them they are standing in the middle of the Thames when patiently they are standing in Trafalgar Square.

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