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Features Editor's Picks Science of Maps Maps

Are digital maps blunting our sense of direction?

For us, leaving home on a trip without HERE maps seems like a rookie error. It’s like forgetting your keys, your wallet or your packed lunch. But some science writers in recent months have suggested that an over-reliance on digital maps isn’t doing us much good. That, when it comes to a sense of direction, you have to ‘use it or lose it’.

In the science journal Nature, satellite navigation expert Roger McKinlay notes:

"Drivers in a simulator who follow satellite-navigation instructions find it more difficult to work out where they have been than those who use maps. Instructed drivers also fail to notice that they have been led past the same point twice. Mountain-rescue teams are tired of searching for people with drained smartphone batteries, no sense of direction and no paper map."

cluster display with a driver

One of his conclusions is that governments need to invest in teaching people to read maps. If you don’t learn this, he argues, and always just follow a set of directions from one place to another, then maybe you’ll never develop an internal ‘mental map’ of the places you live in and visit: a key part of what we call a ‘sense of direction’.

On the Geoawesomeness blog, maps addict Aleks Buckowski observes that satellite-directed motorists are far more detached from their surroundings than drivers who are actively trying to work out their route. If we aren’t looking out for signposts and landmarks, then we’re not going to form an understanding of, or a familiarity with, locations and the relationship between one place and another. After all, this is the opposite of what trained taxi drivers do when they learn the layout of the city visually by travelling to, and memorising, every street.

Before you uninstall…

In response, Alex Osaki from HERE notes opposition to digital aides for functions we used to have to think hard about isn’t new. People have railed against search engines, for example, for making it unnecessary to memorise general knowledge. Alex notes: “This is a zero-sum game. The amount of brain cycles that I used to use memorizing my friends’ phone numbers vs. looking them up in my phone’s address book have not just vanished — they’re letting me do something else with my time and mental resources.”

Alex tells us that being able to outsource our sense of direction and knowledge of the road systems might be better viewed as akin to hiring a lawyer or doctor to give advice on other areas on which we’re not experts: “Making this into an app (or a handheld GPS) allows you to outsource this ability — like being able to put an always on-call navigator into your pocket.”


And note that no-one is suggesting that digital maps are a bad thing. Studying maps is one of the ways that we actually develop a mental image of a place. Often a map opens up your understanding of a location, allowing you to spot shortcuts and alternatives you might never have stumbled upon otherwise, as well as new places to visit.

Two true examples from my own recent experience.

#1 I had to meet a friend on a certain street nearby. Randomly, I checked its location on HERE maps and spotted that there was a footpath down a sidestreet just round the corner, linking two roads, which halved the length of the journey. I had never even imagined such a path might be there before.

#2 Once again, idly zooming around the local map, I spotted a nearby pub hidden in a back street, within 200 yards of the end of my road. For three years, I’d lived within close walking distance and yet never stopped-by because it was tucked out of sight. Be assured, I have now corrected the situation.

Using maps allows you to see the ‘big picture’ of a city. Until you become familiar with that map, it’s quite likely that you’ll have a very selective picture: the area immediately around your house, the nearest train station and the area close to your workplace. It can sometimes take a long time for people to acquire a geographical awareness of even their own city that rises much above those locations. (Frank Schumann shared his psychologist’s understanding of the process with us in this interview).


Another defence is that, when you’re moving around a city, the stumbling block to getting to a destination is very often the traffic, not an inability to find the correct direction. Knowing the best way to overcome traffic requires a holistic understanding of the road network and where all the other vehicles are, something that’s only possible with the aid of computing power.

(Read this piece with Daniel Rolf from HERE, who explained that as individuals we only have a very limited picture – yet continually overestimate our knowledge).

Alex notes that the most detailed memorisation of a street map, “doesn’t help when you want to find the most effective way to get around a city in constantly changing traffic conditions, and across multiple transit modes which are not the same from week to week.”

Alex concludes: “Technology plays a valuable role in helping us to be more effective and to achieve more. I have a notoriously bad sense of direction, personally. So for me, having maps and navigation that work in any city, across any mode of transport, to show me where I am and how to get where I’m going, and to tell me what to expect before I head out, is completely invaluable — even if, in edge cases, I still sometimes get lost."

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