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November 2020

Cognitive navigation and GPS
by Nigel Williams

Before maps existed, the human brain developed the ability to observe landmarks, and use spatial awareness to create a mental map of the countryside around them. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that stores the mental map. Today we help that with navigation tools such as a map and compass. However, a map of the countryside would be a meaningless document if we had never seen or been in the countryside. We develop spatial awareness through experience of the environment/terrain that we recreate or explore in, knowing roughly where we are in relation to various landmarks and the positional relationship between them. (It is a good argument for the value of outdoor education and also why we cannot really learn to navigate/wayfind online).

London cabbies usually spend around 4 years memorising the A-Z map of central London, they call it "Knowledge". They can go between any two places in any direction and are able to work out alternatives if there are delays. They don't use GPS. MRI scans of their brains as they learn the Knowledge shows that they develop a larger than usual hippocampus.

Research into the cognitive impact of using a GPS for navigation goes back to the early 2000s. One experiment asked two sets of people to navigate a route through a built-up area. One set were equipped with maps and compasses the other following the route on a GPS. On arrival at the destination point the navigation tools were removed and they were asked to back track the route from memory. The map and compass users managed the task quickly with few mistakes. The GPS users had difficulty in achieving the task.

Following the dot or arrow on the screen meant that they had barely observed any landmarks around them nor were they particularly conscious of key decision-making points along the route.

Further studies have demonstrated that habitual use of the GPS fails to develop navigation decision making skills but more fundamentally, it fails to develop our cognitive navigation skills in the hippocampus. Furthermore, it appears that the part of the brain required to interact with the GPS, the caudate nucleus (the same part of the brain that works when interacting with video games), silences the hippocampus. It is easy to see which way society seems to be heading.

As we get older the hippocampus deteriorates as we become more sedentary. Scientists are unravelling this decline clearly observed in Alzheimer's sufferers. However, there is good evidence that we need to stimulate the hippocampus to help protect it.

There is a choice as to how we interact with our GPS/phone on the hill. There is a continuum - at one end we can follow the dot and let the GPS control us. At the other end we can exercise our spatial awareness, observation and decision-making skills with a map and just use the GPS to confirm a decision after it has been made, in that scenario we control the GPS.

In between those two ends are a range of levels of integration using navigation tools combined with our spatial awareness and decision making skills. Examples might be using a screen map without the GPS function or navigating from a paper map and taking regular position checks from the GPS.

The aim ought to be to integrate the tools in order to benefit both navigation efficiency and spatial knowledge acquisition.

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September 2020

by Nigel Williams

MapRun is a recent mobile phone app which enables anyone with appropriate online mapping to create a virtual orienteering or navigation course which can be uploaded and then accessed by others. They are generally in urban areas using orienteering maps of the streets and parks etc. It might be described as a cross between geocaching and Strava. In fact you can download your times onto Strava as well as in the MapRun app. However there is no need to run and it is an excellent way to explore a new town with the kids.

Over 30 countries are using it. Orienteering clubs across the UK are mapping and putting courses online on a weekly basis. There are over 130 across Scotland. Check your local orienteering club website. See www.scottish-orienteering.org for more information and to download the maps.

A map with all the checkpoints can be downloaded onto the phone to work with the GPS function. It is recommended to download and print a paper copy to use. There are on screen instructions and optional settings to choose whether you want the GPS showing your position as you follow the route or not.

When it comes to navigation generally there seems to be either a paper or GPS mentality. We hear of an increase in mountain rescues where the only navigation tool has been the phone. Of course those same people may have needed help if they had relied solely on a paper map and compass, but possibly they would not have gone out in the first place if they had no skills or confidence with map and compass. Map Run offers the option of learning to use both together which is how most outdoor professionals now operate, partly because it allows them more head space for interaction and managing safety of clients knowing the GPS as a backup, will pin point them in seconds.

In the last blog I briefly talked about the need to develop the brain's navigation processes and that navigation requires decision making and confidence. It also requires observation skills.

Most people will have used Satnav in the car to find their way to an unfamiliar place and then felt unable to retrace the route without Satnav. This is because the brain has not been able to create a mental map from observing and recording multiple land marks and the sequence of direction changes etc. Driving safely is also a distraction and an indication that navigation tends to need our full attention.

Experiments have been done with people on foot following GPS mapping and tracking on an unfamiliar back street urban route. Unexpectedly at the end they have the GPS and mapping disabled and have to retrace their steps from memory. Same thing is done with other individuals who used a paper map. They proved to be more successful in retracing their route because they had to constantly relate the map and ground, observing landmarks and their relationship to each other, which built up a mental map.

This demonstrates that total reliance on the GPS is less effective at activating and developing the neurological navigation processes. Secondly, that online learning to navigate (which has been talked about in the outdoor sector quite a bit during the lockdown) has only limited use and that we need to engage with the outdoor environment and terrain in order to develop the neurological navigation processes and confidence.

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July 2020

Navigation research
by Nigel Williams

The more I research navigation the more I realise how much there is out there to discover. Lockdown has provided a great opportunity to read and research the subject. The 2020 book "Wayfinding" by Michael Bond provided a wonderful synopsis of where research is heading today some of it linked to Alzheimer's research where sufferers so often ask the question "Where am I?". There are literally hundreds of research papers over many decades. Each one developing ideas from previous insights. Geographers, Cartographers, Psychologists to Neurologists all have papers on the subject. Virtually all mention that navigation involves a wide range of complex skills and that confidence plays a role in our ability. A wise old navigator once said "navigation is 25% map reading, 25% compass work and 50% confidence in the other two". It is much more nuanced than that but it conveys the importance of confidence because it is entwined with decision making, that also opens up a world of heuristic biases.

The researchers often come at it from very different viewpoints, from how many symbols can the brain interpret and manage at one time to what are the key cognitive strategies used to navigate, to which areas of the brain influence navigation and decision making and the thorny issue of whether men or women are better navigators.

I'm pleased to say that from what I have observed over the years and read recently there is no definitive answer to that one. However, there may be some evidence that if there is a difference it may be more linked to early years spatial awareness development opportunities, exposure to the outdoor environment and adventure, and maps at a young age. Social factors may play a part in all that.

So much of navigation is about the cognitive strategies we use, map setting, map memory and map to ground/ground to map interpretation and self-location are key. The first requiring the spatial ability to rotate a map in our head. (Conflicting information on a map between symbols and writing can challenge this, is it easier to navigate with heads up on written words or symbols?). The latter requiring the comprehension of a bird's eye view, and experience of the environment one is travelling in and the observation of what we might expect to see on the map or ground.

Cartographic symbology plays a part and what draws many people to enjoy using Harvey maps. Navigation is also fundamentally decision making and confidence, these are traits that can be developed, nurtured and taught. It all seems to me that there is a significant disconnect between this and how many of us have supposedly been taught to navigate - being able to produce a grid reference. Navigation requires practical outdoor experience to develop the appropriate cognitive strategies and environmental observation skills.

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March 2020

Contours - round or over, how to do a rough calculation
by Nigel Williams

This is sometimes referred to as Bob's Law in mountain marathon circles, but I have no idea who Bob is or was! But it gives us a rough rule of thumb. The premise is that roughly 100m of ascent equates to 1km on the flat. Firstly, we need a way to quickly estimate how far it is to go from A to B via D compared to going over the end of the ridge A to B via C. A to B via D is approximately the combination of distances A to B (via C) 1km and C to D 0.6km = 1.6km.

Next, we count up the contours we cross going up. 8 = 120m of ascent on a Harvey map (15m contour interval). If we assume a walking speed of 4km per hour, 1.6km around the end of the ridge will take approximately 24 mins.

If we assume, according to Naismith's Rule, that we add 1 minute per 10m of ascent we get 12 minutes to add to the 15 minutes direct route over the ridge, giving a total of 27 minutes. So, in this example we might be quicker going around.

Of course, we all travel and manage hills at different speeds. Steepness and under foot conditions have a varying impact. If this example used a 10m interval for the 8 contours then it might be margin-ally quicker to go over.

On a mountain marathon the cunning route planner starting from A would have a check point at B, and then have the next check point back up on the ridge but several kilometres further along. So those that don't plan beyond the next check point risk climbing the hill twice instead of going around and then enduring the climb just once.

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December 2019

Using the 3rd dimension for navigation
by Nigel Williams

The map and the compass are both 2 dimensional tools. Contours give us that 3rd dimension and an amazing amount of information both visually and kinesthetically, (through feeling): The closer the contours the steeper the ground, it is the changes that create significant navigation features.

Direction slope faces (aspect) - If I say my kitchen window has a southerly aspect I mean it faces south e.g. 180 degrees. Which direction a slope faces can be determined by taking a bearing directly looking down the slope. Place the compass on the map and move it around with the northing lines in the capsule and the N on the dial pointing to the top of the map and looking to see where the edge of the compass crosses the contour lines at right angles and pointing downhill. An altimeter would confirm which contour we might be on (1 in diagram).

A slope aspect is an invaluable relocation technique if seriously lost. It helps eliminate large swathes of the map where we cannot possibly be. If one is on a north facing slope (we may have several north facing slope options) we can't be anywhere that the contours indicate an east, south or west aspect.

Contours create line features such as ridges and valleys - but look more closely and even a change in slope steepness (break of slope) creates a line parallel to the contours which it is possible to see and follow. In fact it is possible to take a bearing similar to the slope aspect bearing but across the hill side. We can also see and follow the contour line indicating a change in steepness (2 in diagram).

A ridge or spur are linear features. We can therefore use aiming off techniques if there are changes in steepness along the ridge to find a specific point along it when approaching from a valley below.

Ticking off feature - we can keep track of our progress if we can match the ground we are travelling over to the map. Are we crossing contours at right angles or doing a rising traverse - does the ground flatten out briefly before a short steep climb across the contours? Changes in all 3 dimensions can be related to contours.

Catching feature - What does the ground do just beyond what you are aiming for. If you over shoot it is good to have something to stop you promptly and this could be a change in steepness or aspect, and can often be felt if not seen.

Combining an altimeter into our navigation is a powerful addition especially if one is any line feature. An altimeter will immediately tell us where we are along it and therefore our exact position.

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