“Smartphones and the Uncertain Future of ‘Spatial Thinking'”

“Traditionally, people get around their houses, neighborhoods and cities with the help of an internal ‘cognitive map.’ But that system isn’t much of a map at all. It’s more like a personal library filled with discrete bits of knowledge, landmarks (a bus stop, a church, a friend’s house), and routes. When faced with a new wayfinding task, the brain assembles a plan from those elements. It’s hard work, and its exact mechanism remains a subject of dispute among neuroscientists.

Digital navigation is in some ways a radical break from the type of planning our parents did. ‘When people plan a route based on their mental representation, they have to form a sequence of these landmarks, and follow this plan by reaching landmark after landmark,’ Stephan Winter, a professor of geomatics at the University of Melbourne, tells me. ‘When people use navigation systems, they don’t do this planning any longer.’

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