Your Brain on Foot — and on a Map

Antonia Malchik
3 min readOct 25, 2022

Finding our way without GPS is food for the hippocampus

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have an attachment to paper maps, having used them to get lost — and found — in many a forest and many a foreign city long before the advent of smartphone apps. I like the way maps give a feel for the surrounding landscape or streetscape, how they orient me beyond the edges of my immediate presence, particularly in the places I will never come to know intimately.

I didn’t know that navigating by map instead of GPS was also actively good for the brain.

In her book 52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time, which gives delightful week-by-week walking prompts for a full year, Annabel Streets wrote of the brain benefits of walking with a map:

“Neuroscience suggests that the hippocampus, the part of our brain used for navigation, grows as we use it and withers when we don’t. A sort of use-it-or-lose-it navigational muscle. . . . According to the navigation expert David Barrie, our reliance on technology is not only shrinking essential parts of our brains, but also leaving us prone to Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

In an essay for The Guardian, travel writer Kevin Rushby wrote about walking with Sion Jair, who’d began covering miles on foot in England’s Lake District when he was first diagnosed with a severe type of anemia, and then early dementia. It’s not just that walking — Jair believes — keeps the dementia from taking hold quickly, but that walking without use of a GPS is building connections and cells in his brain.

“He doesn’t believe GPS helps. ‘It takes away skills like timing, pacing and contour-reading — skills that bring a feel for the landscape.’ And beyond that, ‘I reckon they prevent people from building memories of places and routes, gathering all that knowledge and experience into a useful mental map.’

The research, wrote Rushby, seems to support that feeling. In addition to other studies since the early 2000s showing changes in people’s navigational abilities and hippocampus volumes since the widespread adoption of GPS,

“In 2008 a Japanese researcher, Toru Ishikawa, showed that subjects given GPS rather than paper maps made more errors and

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Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; walking, tech, community, and embodiment.