By Stan Purdum
As a cyclist, how’s your route-finding ability?
Mine’s pretty good, though I can’t claim any credit for it, especially since I never did anything to cultivate or develop it. But I apparently have good geographic memory, an aptitude that makes stringing streets, roads and paths together to create bike routes easy.
Because that ability comes naturally to me, I originally assumed it was a skill issued to everyone at birth. But as a newlywed, I noticed that when my wife and I were driving in an unfamiliar area and I’d see some building, road or geographic feature that I recognized, and I’d say, “Oh, I know where we are,” my wife did not have that recall. I often don’t remember street names or highway numbers, but if I see a location where I’ve been before, I can usually envision a route in my mind to connect it to places better known to me. In any case, I soon became the family route-finder.
Later, when I started cycling with others, I found that they often wanted to me select the routes, and I began to suspect that laying out rides didn’t come naturally to everyone.
Geographic memory seems to be something different from “sense of direction,” at least for me. I can get turned around so that I think, for example, that north is one direction when it’s actually another. But if I have a known spot to start from, I can usually orienteer from there.
Geographic memory is a subset of something called “spatial memory,” which is sometimes defined as a “cognitive map.” One explanation says that spatial memory is “responsible for you being able to move freely about your home, remember the route to the grocery store, and find things soon after putting them down.” In my case, I don’t score very well on being able to “find things soon after putting them down” (I often misplace my keys or the open can of soft drink I was carrying around while doing something else).
But apparently, I have the cognitive map, and I guess that’s why, when GPS units became available for bicycles, I never felt the need to have one. I use my smart-phone GPS app when driving in a completely new area to find specific addresses I’m seeking, but when on the bike and just looking for “somewhere to ride,” it’s always seemed more interesting and satisfying to me to just explore roads I see branching off the one I’m pedaling on at the moment.
If route-finding seems difficult to you, experts say it’s possible to improve. They say this ability arises from the hippocampus, a structure in the brain that is also important for other types of memory. It contains special neurons called “place cells,” which identify where you are, and “grid cells,” which remind you of the spatial relationship of this place to other places you’ve been.
According to S. Ausim Azizi, who chairs the department of neurology at Temple University School of Medicine, you can improve your way-finding ability through practice. “The more you get out and go places, the better,” he says. Physical exercise improves the blood flow to the brain, while mental exercise, such as doing puzzles or learning a new language, stimulates the development of new nerve cells and connections in your brain, Azizi says.
Azizi also suggest that the best way to improve your spatial memory is to engage in activities that specifically involve both objects and coordinates. Practice combining these two skills by looking at a landmark and then locating it on a map. (For more on this, see “Why do you always get lost?”)
So if you are route-finding challenged, there’s hope!