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  • Elitsa Ilieva

The Science of Navigation

You get into your car to drive somewhere new, so you put your seatbelt on, adjust your mirrors, find a good radio station or playlist to and put on directions then start driving. Sooner or later you (hopefully) get there. Apps like Waze, Google Maps and Apple maps all help us navigate the complex system of roads that surrounds us so that we can get to where we need to be in the most efficient way. However, most of the time we just blindly follow the directions that the app reads to us; after all, if you’re going somewhere new you don’t know the specific street to turn on, right? While these navigation apps are a critical part of modern life, there are fundamental questions about the implications these apps have psychologically. This is the field that Professor Holly has immersed herself into since her freshman year in graduate school at Stanford.

Since her start at Tufts in 1994, Professor Holly teaches in psychology and mechanical engineering and is a co-director of the Center for Applied Brain & Cognitive Sciences. Her research focuses on the way that people think spatially, whether that be navigating through new surroundings, adapting to changes in their normal route, or real-life applications of this knowledge.

A big part of this research is the creation of a cognitive map, which is the construction we develop in our minds of where locations and structures are in relation to each other. This cognitive map is what allows you to react to a certain obstacle in your route and adjust it so that you can still reach your final destination.

However, Professor Holly and her former graduate student realized that if people use GPS systems all the time for navigation, their learning of the environment is impaired. She says that this may be because you’re dividing your attention towards looking at your navigation system rather than actually taking and processing your environment. This may seem like common sense yet there are plenty of people that rely too heavily and obliviously on navigation apps.

“Where I'm sitting now, I can look out onto the road in the neighborhood and last week a woman walked up and down our street- which is a dead-end street- four times, looking at her phone. I had to go out anyways, so I told her, “You seem lost, I’ve seen you go up and down my road four times” and she was like “yeah, I need to get to this building.” Well, that building’s nowhere near to here, but she said “google maps is telling me this is where I need to go.” There are all sorts of stories about people driving for a year from work to home and they still can’t find their way without using their GPS.”

Another cause of this phenomenon is called cognitive offloading- we do certain things to purposely reduce the cognitive demands of a task. In this case, this would be like saying that the GPS is going to tell you all the directions and important information about the route so you don’t have to pay attention or exert cognitive effort to get to your destination.

While my mother uses waze every day to commute to her job, which has been the same for 5 years, Professor Holly urges her children to look at the directions ahead of time and become familiar with where they’re going so that when they do drive they only need to turn waze on when they are lost. “If you actually learn the environment and don’t depend on technology then you’re able to problem solve better and take the detours when they come up.” She proudly said “I’m very happy that my seventeen year old daughter reported to me that her friends are amazed that she can get all over the place without using maps or waze because she’s practiced it a lot.”

This example also proves another discovery by Professor Holly and her team: that spacial thinking is trainable. Not only is this a trait that can be worked upon and improved, but “spatial thinking is highly associated with success in science, technology, engineering and math. There’s a link between people’s ability to think spatially and how well they do in those disciplines.” With this, she has been part of a spatial thinking training program for elementary schoolers in which they do geometrical paper crafts such as origami and pop-up engineering. Amazingly, but perhaps unsurprising for Professor Holly, these students saw improvements in their performance in math, especially those that involve spatial thinking. She noted that this sort of spatial thinking isn’t taught as a field or skill in elementary school, which does not do students any favors when they get to geometry and chemistry in high school and college.

While driving without navigation systems is a great way to practice spatial thinking and minimize the negative effects of cognitive offloading, this does present a difficulty when the driver is completely lost and needs to turn on directions in the middle of driving. This is why Professor Holly is working on a way to identify the behavioral signals that someone is lost or uncertain when navigating and only then automatically supply them with the necessary information. In effect it would be an intermittent navigation system that depends on the driver’s momentary necessity for directions.

“One of my current students is looking at this continuous behavior for these types of signals and eventually we would partner with people in the engineering school to see if we can build such systems that would be able to detect that type of behavior and present information when people need it. For that reason, we use a lot of virtual reality. My experiments tend to be like video games to some extent, which some people seem to like.”

It’s the aspect of collaboration - in this example with the school of engineering- that Professor Holly loves. For her, the most rewarding thing about doing research is the opportunity to mentor graduate and undergraduate students.

“For me it's getting students excited about research and getting to take them along and generating these questions and getting excited about looking at data- I’m a bit of a data geek... Through those conversations and collaborations with grad students and other faculty [we] generate new ideas and that’s probably the part I find most interesting and most exciting.”

Regarding advice for undergraduates, she suggests that everyone tries research, regardless of the form it takes based on the field. Even if you decide after that research is not for me, she says that you’ve still “learned something about what your interests are. I think it’s a shame when students say they don’t like research and they haven’t really tried research in [a particular] discipline.”

Next time you get in the car and use a navigation app, maybe you’ll think more carefully about how you use the information, and if you even need it at all. Maybe you’ll be surprised that you don’t know your daily route as well as you thought you did, or maybe you’ll be proud that you don’t need an app to tell you how to handle the closed street or traffic you encounter at all. Which category do you think you would fall into?


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