Is There a Physical Difference Between the Brains of Pedestrians and Motorists?

You are probably familiar with paper maps, computer maps, GPS maps, but are you as familiar with the map inside your brain? 

Monday, the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to three researchers who researched the part of the brain that acts as our “inner GPS”, the hippocampus. The hippocampus (greek for sea horse which it resembles) is located in the interior part of the brain and is part of the limbic system. The hippocampus in living people can be viewed and measured using imaging techniques like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Here’s a You Tube video showing 3D imaging of the hippocampus.

In addition to acting as our inner navigator, the hippocampus also has a role handling memories and emotions. The hippocampus may also play a role in navigating the fourth dimension .The emotional, navigational and time-sequencing functions of the hippocampus may also guiding the individual though the spiritual realm. It seems that a healthy, active hippocampus is important to knowing our place in the world and that may give us a sense of well-being.

Researchers say the hippocampus can be damaged and even reduced in volume by stress. The damage is apparently caused by the hormone cortisol which appears to have a toxic effect on neurons in the hippocampus. The size of the hippocampus  has also been linked to the ability of survivors of traumatic experiences to avoid PTSD.

How can this research into the hippocampus and future research inform urban planners?

Do the hippocampi of pedestrians and motorists differ in size? There is a study that compares the hippocampus size of cab drivers and motorists, but I have not found a similar study for motorists and pedestrians.

I would guess pedestrians would have a larger, better functioning hippocampus because they navigate in a manner humans have used to find their way in a variety of environments for millennia. Pedestrians, in a traffic-calmed, urban landscape can navigate using all their senses, creating a neural grid of complex memories in their brains –  the laughter of children as you walk past a playground, the smell of fresh-brewed coffee as you walk past a cafe, the pleasant sight of flowers blooming in a garden, the taste of food in a sidewalk restaurant, the unpleasant feeling of stepping in dog droppings. These sensory impressions  provoke an emotional response that is fused to that place and time. All of these sensory impressions and their accompanying emotions are sorted and arranged into a map and timeline of neurons by the hippocampus.This is perhaps why the destruction or disappearance of familiar landmarks provokes a strong emotional reaction in many people. The destruction of an old, cherished landmark rips into this tightly woven fabric of memories and their corresponding emotions.

Motorists navigate, however, mainly by words on a sign or an electronic device. Motorists in their sealed, climate-controlled capsules  do not have the rich, sensory experience of pedestrians walking through a traffic-calmed, urban community. Auto-dominated landscapes in the suburbs lack the rich mix of sensory stimuli of pedestrian-friendly cities. If there is anything interesting, the motorist too often has little time to notice.  Lots of times, the landscape of strip malls, gas stations and fast food franchises repeat themselves – a repeating landscape that confounds mental mapping. And driving is inherently stressful, likely causing cortisol to flood the brains as the motorists reacts to conditions that cause major crashes and  minor fender-benders, not to mention road rage and the anxiety caused by traffic jams, searching for parking, etc.

It would make an interesting study.

Here’s a non-scientific experiment; below are portions of two Twin Cities maps side by side. The example on the left is a map designed for motorists (1964 Rand McNally’s Road Atlas). The example on the right is a portion from a community-oriented, pictorial map designed by my talented wife Roberta Avidor (map available from The Saint Paul Almanac) with community landmarks. Which of these two maps increase your feelings of well-being and connection to your community? (click on the maps to make them bigger).


Ken Avidor

About Ken Avidor

Ken Avidor is an illustrator, cartoonist and occasional courtroom sketch artist. Ken Avidor is an active urban sketcher and maintains a daily, illustrated journal. Ken is married to urban cartographer and talented sketch artist Roberta Avidor in the Union Depot in Lowertown, Saint Paul. Follow Ken and Roberta's sketching/bicycling adventures on their travel blog.