Yes an odd combination, but both of the above could help preserve our memories. And both are easy enough to do.
We all love the convenience and effortlessness of Google maps and any other digital map app or satellite navigation system we might be using. But a growing body of research suggests we may have been too hasty in ditching good old-fashioned maps for the latest technology. Last year, the writer, David Barrie, warned that our newfound reluctance to self-navigate was raising our risk of Alzheimer’s. The hippocampus is one of the first brain areas to deteriorate when dementia strikes, eating away at our ability to remember directions or to orient ourselves in space. Barrie believes that navigating is a vital part of building strength and resilience in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex (the part of the brain where Alzheimer’s is thought to start, and a critical hub for navigation and memory). After all, homo sapiens has spent millennia developing superb locational skills. When we’re following a red dot on a screen, all locational knowledge passes us by. It’s just too easy, says Barrie, who believes (as we do) that the brain is a muscle in constant need of exercise.
Now a new book, by the science journalist Michael Bond, adds grist to the mill. Bond believes we’re sleepwalking into a cognitive crisis – thanks to our enthusiasm for outsourcing navigation to our phones. He too believes Alzheimer’s to be a disease of orientation. A study published last week went further, identifying another brain area called the retrosplenial cortex, and two particular neurons, crucial for navigation. The authors wondered if damage to this part of the brain might lead to the spatial disorientation so common in those with Alzheimer’s.
So far scientists agree that we use three types of brain cell to navigate – direction cells, place cells and grid cells, all of which are constantly firing and sending information to the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex, enabling our brains to place us in a sophisticated mental map. It’s an extraordinarily intricate and beautiful piece of engineering. And when it doesn’t work, life becomes confusing and terrifying. I know this, because my brain started misfiring a couple of years ago. I was on a bus and – for reasons no neurologist ever uncovered – the view from the window became oddly pixelated. Although I was within minutes of my home bus stop, suddenly I didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t recognise any landmarks. Somehow I got off the bus and found the street sign for my street. Nothing looked familiar but I could read – so I knew I was nearly home. But then I couldn’t recognise my house. At which point I began to panic. I was lost on my own street (where I had lived for twenty years), unable to recognise my own front door. I wandered around, going in and out of the wrong front gardens, heart thumping with fear. Long-time readers of this blog will recall that my brain then shut down completely and I fell into a short coma, cracking my head on the pavement in the process. I recovered. But the point is this: not being able to spatially locate yourself is terrifying. I never want to experience it again.
So. I went on a navigation course last year in the snow-bound Scottish mountains, where – perversely – our instructor got us so lost he had to resort to Google maps on his iPhone. But before that we scrambled around with proper maps and compasses, counting steps, following contours and generally building the resilience of our hippocampi. Since then I’ve map-read my way through France, Scotland, Texas and New Mexico, researching my book-in-progress and using some of the techniques Michael Bond suggests in his new book (Wayfinding, published last week). These include exploring alone – which is particularly important for women. Bond believes women have been held back by not exploring enough on their own and by not being encouraged to roam freely in childhood.
Before I embarked on my recent programme of solo travel I always left map-reading and navigation to my husband. Always. Yes, sexist I know. And lazy. But he was so much better at it than I was. Or so I thought. Until I went to a lecture by Professor Gina Rippon on The Gendered Brain (see her book of the same title). She used recent research to turn all this gendered nonsense on its head, proving that women are born with identical navigational capacities – which languish un-nourished, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Walking on my own prevents me delegating the map-reading. I’m too embarrassed to admit how often I’ve been lost. But I’ve always made it home… eventually.
Another navigational technique I’m practising is this: paying close attention to my surroundings, and mentally logging landmarks as I pass them. This is a good brain and memory exercise whether or not you’re navigating. As Michael Bond points out, experienced navigators (like London’s black cab drivers) have a larger hippocampus and suffer less from dementia. To which I’ll add that women typically do less navigation and are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Correlation, causation or coincidence? Who knows, but if you’ve any spare time this week why not head out somewhere new (with a map, and your phone turned off) and exercise your brain and your body in one fell swoop?
So. On to garlic. This study involved mice not people, but as garlic is cheap and delicious I’m hoping the same results might be found in humans. Like map-reading, it won’t hurt you. Anyway, mice fed garlic were found to have improved memories and improved spatial recall. The authors think that consuming garlic helps counteract age-related changes in gut bacteria associated with memory problems. The magic ingredient is allyl sulfide, a compound in garlic (and onions and chives) known for its health benefits.
We know the gut contains trillions of microorganisms collectively known as our microbiota. We also know that our microbiota declines as we age. This study found that when allyl sulfide was fed to mice that were 24 months old (the equivalent of 56 – 69 years in humans) they showed better long-term and short-term memory and healthier gut bacteria than the non-garlic-consuming mice. Spatial memory also declined in the mice not receiving garlic. How on earth can garlic impact the entorhinal cortex?
The researchers aren’t sure, but suspect allyl sulphide restores gut bacteria by producing hydrogen sulfide gas, a messenger molecule that dampens inflammation in the gut. Somehow, this effects the part of the brain responsible for memory, including spatial memory. Clearly the gut-brain axis is infinitely more complicated than was ever imagined.
Want to improve your navigation skills? A short piece here might help.
So. Grab some garlic/onions and an ordnance survey map. Take a bus or train somewhere. Get off and walk home using only your map. You’ll be surprised how much fun it is. Let us know how you get on.
Julia Schofield says
This is both astounding and makes so much sense. I worked as a tour guide to European cities in my late twenties. I could navigate countries I’d never been to, judge how much fuel we’d need and when we’d arrive wherever, from good maps. This skill has disappeared with ageing and lack of use, and as friends urge you to make your life easier (and possibly theirs!) by using sat-nav, I have begun to think I should give in and use tech. This article has dissuaded me – (except in dire circumstances.) My mother had early onset Alzheimers and I had always felt that her feeling purposeless and going nowhere at all except when driven in the car by my father, once all four children had left home, contributed in some way. I’m going to start getting myself knowingly lost accompanied by a good map -and possibly a compass.
– and a phone for last resort. Thank you
Annabel Streets says
Glad you enjoyed! yes, i’m returning to the trusty map …I always loved maps and a postage-sized screen has none of a map’s sheer magic! I bet tour guides have brains like london black cab drivers too.
Mrs Barbara Head says
You are completely correct advising us girls to map read I was a black cab driver I
London I’ve just retired at 83 years of age
I’ve only just given up my badge because I’ve lost the hearing in my left ear and if the passenger decided to change destination I just couldn’t hear.
If I can’t sleep I plot my way through the streets of London and picture all the landmarks. I love google but if I’m going somewhere strange I always get the map out plot my route write it in down with all the road numbers roundabouts, left and right turns I like to picture the whole route.
Love your blog.
Annabel Streets says
Wow – I love this! Excellent advice, and what a superb role model you are. Thanks for your comment and keep on map-reading!
Thank you! This makes complete sense. My sense of direction has always been non-existent which is really disorientating. I leave a shop and turn the wrong way, get very confused with map reading, am clueless how anyone can work out where the north, south is etc. Maps do make me feel extremely muddled. However I also believe that I just need (bucket loads of) practice and while I’ll probably never be a natural – it can only improve! I just need to find a few self help methods now … thanks for your suggestions in your blog.
Annabel Streets says
I recommend a navigation course if you’re up to it, although it’s really more useful for the countryside. I was utterly hopeless, then I got a bit better then I switched to Google maps (with great relief), and then it was all down hill. I’m now back with my A-Z and rather enjoying it! Thanks for your comment and keep working at it…
Michael Bond says
Thank you for mentioning my book Annabel! One thing to add to your excellent advice is that people who think they are poor navigators are often anxious about doing it without sat nav and so they don’t try and thus have no chance of improving. Navigation is like most skills in that we can get better with practice. No need to plunge into the deep end, we can take small steps and go from there (try starting with a destination a few streets away). Feel the fear and do it anyway! (Incidentally my book is called Wayfinding rather than Wayfaring, though the latter would also have made a good title :))
Annabel Streets says
Thanks, Michael. Whoops – have amended the typo. Apologies! Good advice to start small – and local. When my children were younger I would split them into two teams and drive them to remote-ish locations and make them walk back with nothing but a map – and the first team won. So I love your points about children and the need to roam and explore. It’s so important… Thanks for the comment!