When I was a child, one of the main reasons I wanted to become an adult was so that I could drive. Learning to drive by sitting in my father’s lap and turning the wheel while he used the pedals, I realised I didn’t have a head for directions. In fact, I am liable to get lost quite easily without clear step-by-step instructions. Growing up, I thought this would be a major hindrance to my dreams of driving off into the sunset, but it has proved to be a minor inconvenience. This is thanks to the navigation offered by Google Maps.
Driving in Mumbai is like going on a quest, there’s two items you have to know before you set out: the fastest route and where you’ll be able to park. The fastest route could be a giant detour and may be the longest, but with less traffic. This is where Google Maps comes in handy. As someone who hasn’t lived in the city for all that long, and doesn’t remember roads all that well, the app is a boon. This goes double for when I’m travelling to new places. I mean part of the reason I bought a good set of headphones in the UK was that I could listen to Google giving me directions without seeming like I didn’t have a clue where I was going.
There is a downside to using maps all the time. Many different research projects have shown that depending on the app to guide you can reduce one’s cognitive abilities, specifically the memory and analytical areas of the brain. There is the famous case of the London taxi drivers whose job requires them to memorise all the roads in the city, also known as “The Knowledge”. A study led by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, showed a greater volume of grey matter – the nerve cells in the brain where processing takes place – in an area known as the posterior hippocampus and less in the anterior hippocampus compared to non-taxi drivers.
All this science means that by depending on the smartphone app to guide us we use our brains less, and like any part of the body, when it is used less it atrophies. Véronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal has a gloomy outlook on this saying it could lead to a loss of memory and a growing long-term risk of dementia.
The maps application does take the hassle out of remembering a route or planning an hour long trip (any journey in Mumbai is about that long). It’s like you have your own co-pilot giving you directions, making the competitive driving environment and the bumpy roads feel like a rally stage. I’ve learned to concentrate on driving better and smoother rather than wonder what route to take. Particularly on these lawless roads, it helps to keep an eye out for the random pedestrian running across a poorly lit road, or the biker who suddenly swerves to avoid a porthole.
While research shows the opposite, my experience with Google Maps has led me to learn many new roads and has actually helped to expand my mental map of Mumbai, London, Bristol, Cardiff, Pune, and a few other cities. I can’t make any argument for the size of my hippocampus though.
The road less travelled
Despite the sheer amount of help Google Maps offers, there are times when the route it suggests is definitely not the one you want to take. The app always looks for the fastest route with the least amount of traffic. This sometimes means that, Google believes cutting through a narrow slum road is quicker than the main road. While this may be true in terms of time, the number of vehicles parked in the road, the people, animals and food stalls partly blocking the road, and the general unease of entering such a section make it torturous to traverse.
All-in-all, maps has made driving more of a pleasure than it used to be but I think some of that road trip magic has been lost. The convenience of Google Maps is undeniable but part of going on a road trip to an unknown place is getting lost, finding something new and undiscovered, and finding your way back. That’s what makes for a good story over drinks, isn’t it?