In the Brain Games Episode “What’s Going On?” we learned about spatial awareness and the complex, multi-sensory process by which your brain figures out where you are in relation to other objects and the rest of your environment. We also learned about humans’ sense of direction and ability to navigate has long been a crucial survival tool. But if you’re one of those people who habitually gets lost in parking garages and spends a lot of time staring at street signs with an exasperated look, here are some tips on how to improve your ability to figure out where you are and how to get to your intended destination.
• Stop relying so much on the GPS. Some neuroscientists believe that as we become increasingly dependent upon that gadget on the dashboard to tell us where to go, our ability to form mental maps increasingly may atrophy. So, scary as it seems, try turning it off at least occasionally and using your own senses, memory and imagination to get to where you’re going.
• Look at what’s around you. We’ve become so accustomed to using directional gadgets and following lists of directions that we often ignore our surroundings, which deprives us of the visual data that we need to form associations and mentally map our surroundings. Neuroscientists actually can see the effects of this laziness in brain scans. People who are reliant upon directions actually have less grey matter in the hippocampus area of their brains than people who navigate by visualizing their relative position to their surroundings and destination. (Conversely, London cabbies, who spend years developing the ability to navigate London’s complex geography by memory, have more grey matter in the hippocampus that the typical person.) Try to notice and remember features of the environment—distinctive buildings, trees, monuments, landscaping—that will help you to form a more detailed mental picture.
• Train your brain. Temple University neurologist S. Ausim Azizi, in an interview with WebMD, notes that there are two modes of mental navigation—utilizing landmarks to memorize directions, and calculating distances, such as remembering to go 50 yards to the north and then 50 yards to the east. But the best way to improve your navigational abilities is to practice using both of these methods at once. He suggests picking a landmark, looking at it, and then locating it on a map, so that you can calibrate your ability to calculate distance as well.
• Get in shape. Dr. Azizi also observes that exercise improves blood flow to the brain, and that studies have shown that older adults who increase their aerobic workouts have increased volume in the hippocampus region of the brain. So go for regular walks. You can actually practice your navigational skills as you’re doing that, as well.