The advent of computer-based navigation systems and navigation aids, like GPS and google-maps, has revolutionized human spatial navigation. No longer do we require conventional fold-up maps, with their difficult to use look-up systems, and for many of us, “getting lost” is now a thing of the past. Instead, we can now find our way simply by following instructions spoken by small computer console, requiring minimal mental engagement in most instances. An important question then that this technology raises is do computer-based navigation systems make us dumber? In this talk, I will turn to what neuroscience has taught us about the rich navigational systems available to us in our brain, including a neural system that extracts short-cuts during navigation (route-based system), a system that allows us to abstract object-relational information from maps (survey-based system), a system that allows us to navigate fairly well even in the absence of any visual-input (path-integration), and a system based on following sequences of right and left turns (rote-based or egocentric system).
Computer-based navigation systems primarily rely on our rote-egocentric system. Neuroscience and behavioral research suggest that when we employ the rote-egocentric systems we typically learn the least about the layout of streets and buildings in a city and thus minimally engage brain systems fundamental for actually learning the layout of a new city. In addition to presenting both neuroscience and behavioral data to support the above assertions, I will present novel ideas for devices that may more effectively interface with existing human brain-based navigation systems. These include systems that provide a “pre-play” of a route before driving, simultaneous rendering of current view-point and position in an overview map, and displays involving better integration of current heading vectors. By more effectively interfacing with our existing navigational systems, we can synergistically enhance what we learn from computer-based navigational systems as well as ensure that we are not totally helpless when we forget to charge our GPS.
Arne Ekstrom is Assistant Professor, Center For Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis. The primary mission of his lab is to better understand the neurophysiological basis of human memory. Their particular focus is on spatial memory and attempting to understand the cognitive and neural components underlying it. They employ several different recording methodologies to better understand spatial memory, including intracranial EEG, fMRI, and scalp EEG. Studies in the lab focus on how human hippocampal theta oscillations code for aspects of a spatial layout, which brain areas are involved in overview and first-person representations, how navigation and memory processing are represented in overlapping or unique brain systems, and how the different recording modalities they use tie together or provide complementary information about underlying brain processes.
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