What does memory have to do with your sense of direction? And why do some people, more commonly women, have a poor sense of direction? Here are some takeaways from an interview with Mary Hegarty, Ph.D., Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at University of California, Santa Barbara, based on her research.
- The brain’s hippocampus, which is involved in spatial memory, appears to play a role in navigation. London taxi drivers, who have to pass an infamously hard test without the use of GPS or maps, tend to have a large hippocampus. This was true even when they were compared with London bus drivers who were the same age, had been on the job the same amount of time, and did as much driving but always followed the same routes (in contrast to cab drivers who have to find the most efficient ways to get to their destinations). This suggests that hippocampal volume increases with experience as a taxi driver.
- The male/female differences may have an evolutionary basis. There are variations within the two sexes but, on average, men are better at navigation. It’s theorized that because our early male ancestors were the hunters, they had to travel farther from home to follow game and then had to find their way back. There may have been evolutionary selection for this navigation ability. Women, who were the gatherers, are generally better at static spatial memory-knowing where things are on a smaller scale. Evolutionarily, this helped them find herbs and vegetables, for example, in their local environment. Today, there are also cultural stereotypes that women are worse at navigation, which could inhibit them from exploring their environment more.
- Men and women tend to use different navigational strategies. Men tend to have a better inherent representation of the environment and where things are in space. This “cognitive map” allows them to take shortcuts, while women are more likely to use familiar routes and pay attention to local landmarks. If all you do is learn regular routes but then have to go an alternative way, you’re more likely to get lost. But if you have a sense of where things are and end up in a novel place, you can still figure out a route to where you want to go.
- You can improve your ability to navigate. Pay more attention to your environment and, time allowing, take different routes to your usual destinations. Try not to rely on GPS, or at least try to relate local landmarks displayed on the screen to the actual environment. For instance, if it shows a school on the right, note what it looks like so you can recognize it if you pass it again in the future. Also pay attention to global landmarks, such as a mountain range, to help you orientate yourself.