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Save Your Hippocampus: Use Your Spatial Memory

Robie is a big fan of healthy life styles with a positive attitude. She also loves gardening, a passion passed on by her grandparents.

Functions of the Hippocampus:

The hippocampus is involved in several functions of the body including:

  • Consolidation of New Memories
  • Emotional Responses
  • Navigation
  • Spatial Orientation

What Is Spatial Memory?

Spatial memory is the ability to remember the position or location of objects and places.

It refers to remembering information that has to do with space and directions, such as the geographical layout of your hometown or the interior of a house.

We use spatial strategy when we build mental maps using associations between landmarks to help us determine where we are, but it also helps us plan how to get somewhere, and finding shortcuts to our destinations.

Shape and Placement of the Hippocampus

The hippocampus got its name from the sea horse (hippocampus in Latin) because its curled shape reminds of one. It's formed by two parts: right and left hippocampi.

The hippocampus got its name from the sea horse (hippocampus in Latin) because its curled shape reminds of one. It's formed by two parts: right and left hippocampi.

We Are Relying More and More on Technology to Find Our Way

Until a few years ago, it was normal and necessary to have a paper road map in the car at all times. We used to plan our route looking at them.

The cool part is that often, we only had to do it on our way to the destination. On the way back most people would usually find the route back on their own, relying on their memory and intuition.

Now We Get Lost Without Our GPS

Gradually, we started to rely on the GPS more and more, to the point that, for some particular places that we visit seldom yet regularly, we have to set the GPS every single time, because we always get confused at certain intersections and get lost.

How to Increase Spatial Memory

To prevent losing your mind to a low efficiency hippocampus, start to do the following:

  • When the route it’s not too long or complicated, look up the directions online, visualize them, and then try to get there based on what you remember or from notes you took of the directions (and printouts).
  • As an alternative to the above, before hitting Go to destination on the GPS, zoom out until you see the complete route highlighted, get a visual idea of what direction you'll be moving and which streets you'll drive on, then push Go .
  • If you need to use the GPS to go somewhere, try to get back on your own. Usually, we are less in a hurry coming back from a place than going, so if you make a mistake, it's ok. It might make it a bit longer, but you get to use spatial memory and create some new memories.
  • Try to do memory games and brain puzzles - you can’t have enough stimulation of your gray matter!
  • Eat healthy and exercise, they say it helps with memory as well.

What Happened to Our Brain?

Is it possible that our mind is getting so lazy that it prefers to set the techy co-pilot rather than spend energy figuring out the route?

What happened to the me that was good with maps and directions?

I used to get a clear visual map of my itinerary in my head, and based on that get in the car and drive my way to my destination, with no second thoughts.

Now, with the GPS telling me what’s ahead only until the next turn, I lost the big picture, and every trip sets a blurry memory of turns and landmarks that do not form a cohesive map. It’s all foggy in my mind.

The use of paper maps kept my brain active, even re-folding them each time was a brain teaser.

The use of paper maps kept my brain active, even re-folding them each time was a brain teaser.

About Loss of Spatial Memory

One day I was so fed up of this feeling of fogginess when trying to figure out a route on my own, that I did some research on the effect of the GPS on the brain.

Sure enough, and quite disappointingly I have to admit, I found confirmation of my fears. According to Véronique Bohbot, PhD. at McGill University, using the GPS regularly does damage your brain, specifically relying on the GPS all the time for finding your way around, can cause atrophy of the Hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in navigation and spatial memory.

And this was not the worst news! Apparently the atrophy of the Hippocampus, with related loss of spatial memory, is typically one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and it’s also very common in dementia due to a normal aging process.

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Now, I’m not saying the GPS causes Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I’m just reporting that the symptoms of overuse of GPS are somehow similar to those diseases. And I figured that if I am meant to get those, using the GPS will only quicken the process.

I freaked out. “I’m in my forties and I have symptoms that could possibly be the anteroom to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Because of the little black talking box?” Boy, was I scared.

Something needed to be done.

More Memory Research: the London Taxi Drivers

As if that information was not enough, I also found literature about a study on the hippocampi of long time London cab drivers. Their hippocampi were much larger than those of regular people, and they activate specifically when the taxi driver is asked to use spatial memory, and do not activate if asked for information about landmarks.

A definite proof that planning your own itinerary and finding shortcuts does keep you hippocampus healthy and active.


  • The Douglas Institute,
  • Annenberg learner,
  • Maguire, E., R. Frackowiak, and C. Firth. 1997. Recalling routes around London: Activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers. J. Neuroscience

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2012 Robie Benve


Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 11, 2012:

Hi Jane,

Let's keep using those road maps girl, they will keep us younger! :) Thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

jane-truecolors on May 06, 2012:

This post really gave mea boost, because I have a GPS and I never used it. And yes I do get lost regularly, but somehow I prefer pulling out my road map. I used to feel terribly old fashioned but with this reassuring news you made my day ! xx

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on May 01, 2012:

@ DzyMsLizzy, I totally agree on technology being a double edged sword. It helps us a lot on many aspects of our life, but we have to be watchful not to abuse the extra help and loose our skills.

@ JKenny, if it works for you, I'd suggest you stay away from the GPS as long as you can. I tell you, once you see the usefulness, it's hard to do without. Keep being clever. :)

@ emilybee, your GPS tell you to "do an illegal U-turn"? I surely never heard that before. Not only it costs us our memory, but some traffic tickets too! lol

All, I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 30, 2012:

@ Melovy, your husband is a pilot? Cool! He probably has many opportunities to keep his hippocampus active, and don't have to worry about spatial memory loss. Unfortunately some of the modern technology does make our brains "lazier".

I think that with the technological progress, we have to find new ways to use the amazing powers of our mind.

It will be interesting to see how future generations will handle this aspect of technology progressively taking over every-day tasks.

emilybee on April 28, 2012:

Very interesting and I tend to agree. Folding the maps that many of us still keep in our cars, yet don't touch because of our handy gps, was a part of every road trip back in the day. I still manage to get lost while using my gps by turning at the wrong street. For me, gps helps because it instructs me to "make an illegal u-turn" to fix my errors :) voted up, sharing

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on April 28, 2012:

Interesting article, Robie. I've heard a lot of good things about GPS, but I'm not really a gadget man, and I actually like planning my own routes, makes me feel like I'm in control, plus it makes you feel clever too.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on April 28, 2012:

Very interesting, and yet somehow, not surprising. I have a GPS, and I do use it, but I do not rely upon it totally. I used to be very good with maps and navigation, and my younger daughter inherited that skill. My eldest, however, is more like my mother, who could get lost inside a shopping mall, or even in a teacup.

Like you, once I've been somewhere, I can find my way home, and get there again on my own without the GPS. I mainly use it if hubby is with me, going someplace new, as he is very impatient and gets quite irritable if we happen to make a wrong turn or two and get a bit turned around. So, I punch in the GPS, and off we go. Alone, however, if I make a wrong turn, I can usually figure out how to get back on track, as I'm pretty good at compass points, and know which way I want to be heading. The only thing that fouls me up then are one-way or dead-end streets. Still and all, I've never been so lost as to have to call for directions. And I took my kids camping all over the western US by myself--with only old-fashioned paper maps as my guide--that was before internet and Mapquest..(which, by the way, is far from infallible...)

But the phone thing--yeah--I don't have a 'smart phone,' and don't use a cell phone at all regularly. I only have a pay-as-you-go cell for emergencies--no one has the number, and I can't even remember what it is without looking it up. BUT.. ... the house phones do have a phone book built in, and yes, I hardly know anyone's numbers anymore. But back when my kids were growing up, we had the old "tied-to-the-wall-by-a-cord" phone with a rotary dial...and you could take my phone book away, read me a phone number at random, and I could tell you to whom it belonged. I know I've lost that ability.

:-( Technology surely is a double-edged sword!

Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.

Yvonne Spence from UK on April 28, 2012:

This is a very interesting hub. I had no idea relying on GPS could so this. I don’t use one much, but my husband does. But since he’s a pilot we can probably assume he gets enough other opportunities to exercise his hippocampus that he’ll be okay!

I so agree on the phone numbers - I used to know so many numbers and now know far fewer.

Voted up and sharing.

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 19, 2012:

Hi cocopreme, I'm with you on the the phone number problem. Sadly, I think I could still call my friends from middle school without looking them up, but there is no way I can remember my current friends numbers. Pretty scary... Kudos to your grandfather, way to go! :)

Candace Bacon from Far, far away on April 18, 2012:

I think your idea applies to all kinds of technology. This makes me think of cell phones. Before my contact list was in my phone, I could remember people's phone numbers because I manually dialed them. Now I know only a handful of numbers.

I was watching my 88 year old grandfather call some of his friends from the hospital recently. He knew all of their numbers still because he actually punches in the numbers himself.

I can't help but think that in an emergency, if I didn't have my phone, I might not be able to get in contact with anyone. Technology is making us stupider in many ways. Great hub and definitely something important to think about!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 11, 2012:

Thanks everyone for commenting, it feels great to read that I am not the only one trying to limit the dependency on the GPS, even more now that I have scientific evidence.

Well, apart from hecate-horus, but I respect the fact that you would not give the GPS up if you are not comfortable with maps etc.

Thank you all for the stopping by and taking the time to write a note. :)

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 11, 2012:

Hi Nettlemere, I didn't know GPs are doctors in the UK. I went back and added the spell out of GPS at the beginning of the hub and the summary to clear any confusion. Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad you liked it. :)

mljdgulley354 on April 11, 2012:

We travel a lot and have a GPS. We use it to find places we have never been and then put it away. Great information here.

hecate-horus from Rowland Woods on April 10, 2012:

You have a valid point. But since I've always been horrible with maps and directions, the GPS will stay. Interesting hub.

vintagegliders on April 10, 2012:

Great hub.My husband has always been against using a gps system for the same exact reasons.says he like to rely on his brain for finding new places and remembering.......what a concept lol voted up

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on April 10, 2012:

Apart from misreading the title to start with (in the UK GPs are doctors) cool article - I'm a technophobe and like to claim it's because all these bits of technology are making us less functional and resourceful - now you've given me proof!

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