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Yellow Roofs And Grey Matter

Why GPS can destroy your spatial memory, and how autorickshaw drivers build their brains

27/10/2016 11:27 AM IST | Updated 27/10/2016 12:03 PM IST
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Bruce Yuanyue Bi

The grid of roads in the National Capital Region, punctuated by circular traffic islands, is delightfully flanked by green sign boards serving as pathfinders for new commuters like me.

Yet, lost in the circumambulation of India Gate, it took us more than a few minutes to amble up to our allotted hostel rooms in Central Delhi, well past midnight, and under a waning moon.

Getting around this circuitous labyrinth of roads and by-roads without a vehicle of my own is going to be tough, I realised.

Delhi was my first posting as a civil servant. I came to the Capital with apprehension and aspiration in equal measure. Rides on Delhi roads as a local commuter not only put me at ease, but also woke my wanderlust. Real experiences, real lives and real people in this virtual world proved to be an inspiration to me at work and beyond.

Having grown up in modest environs, buses and autorickshaws were trustworthy modes of transport for me. But the sprawling capital city appeared to be studded with more taxis and cars than either of them. I was wisely advised by my peers to download Uber, Ola and other necessary apps to hire a cab as and when required, at a touch of a screen. So I did. Two days later, I figured out that more often than not, my cab-drivers without maps failed to find their way around the midpoint of Delhi: my office-home-office commute being between the pin codes 110001 and 110011.

This irked me for some reason. So I decided to walk back home from the office, under warm skies with the gorgeous mid-tones of the pinks, oranges and purples of sunset — a sight to behold. My fellow citizens clothed in brighter pinks, oranges and many more colours thronged the public lawn and parks around the imposing India Gate, adding charm to the breezy evenings. A chocobar from an ice-cream vendor on the sideways at rush-hour meant fulfilment for my five senses. Accruing spatial memory for my way around my home and workplace couldn't have been more nourishing, notwithstanding the not uncommon male gaze.

Then summer sprinkles started playing pranks on me, which made me pull over a roof over my head — a yellow roof that I fancied. Autorickshaws were my mode of conveyance as a child, to school and back, less pleasurable only than the kangaroo-rides on my dad's scooter. Nostalgia gives you a sense of gleeful familiarity which pushes you towards your object with ease.

The leaps of trust I took every time I stepped into an autorickshaw never ceased to amaze me. I felt free, yet safe, lost, yet secure, new, adventurous, yet purposeful.

I found myself hopping into auto-rickshaws day after day to navigate the city and explore new places. Sitting inside the non-air-conditioned carriages, you feel the breeze combing through your hair as a raw sense of oneness with nature blossoms within you. The leaps of trust I took every time I stepped into an autorickshaw never ceased to amaze me. I felt free, yet safe, lost, yet secure, new, adventurous, yet purposeful.

Some of the stories shared by the rickshaw drivers were touching and transformational. Octogenarians and septuagenarians generously gave their blessings and wishes to their beti, as I thanked them for their polite service. They shared stories of their lives and the struggles of their living; warm smiles accompanied the miles we covered. Those yellow roofs almost became a story-book for me; a book whose pages had maps, lists of what's nearby, directions, and much more – like an app, but with a human touch imparting the real joy of the experience of exploring a city.

A disproportionate sense of joy burst within me every time I was driven by grey-haired gentlemen who deftly arrived at my destinations via the shortest routes possible – routes not listed on my Google maps! It took me very few interactions with them to realise that their grey hair hid a copious amount of grey matter which many of us in my generation probably lack – spatial memory.

Beneath the two cerebral hemispheres of the limbic system, the human brain hosts a sea-horse shaped structure called the hippocampus. This structure has been found to be the seat of spatial memory. Not too long ago, in 2014, the Nobel Prize in medicine/physiology was awarded to three neuroscientists who explained the basic neural processes involved in spatial memory. They decoded the inner GPS in human brains by identifying the functions of place cells, grid cells and head-direction cells which together form maps of places and routes of navigation, and make sense of complex environments.

As human beings evolved and spread across the globe, the sense of place and the ability to navigate became more and more crucial to our existence. This fundamental ability is the first to be affected in the dreaded disorder called Alzheimer's disease, in which patients often lose their way and cannot recognise the environment. Among such people, the hippocampus area is seen to be dysfunctional at an early age.

It took me very few interactions with them to realise that their grey hair hid a copious amount of grey matter which many of us in my generation probably lack – spatial memory.

A study done by a professor of cognitive neuroscience in central London revealed that London taxi drivers had more grey matter volume in their posterior hippocampal region; a functional feature attributed to their extraordinary navigational abilities. If a scientific study was to be done on the brains of our age-old rickshaw drivers, I am certain that they would be rated above the London drivers, for Indian cities are far more complex and chaotic, making drivers' navigation and cognitive skills much more prized.

It may be easier to follow the instructions of a headless voice from a device, but it certainly is better to use your own head and listen to a human voice, lest you should have neurosurgeons installing an 'artificial inner GPS' in your hippocampus.

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