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).

 @map


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

  1. LCaution October 8, 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    I don’t know, but as a long-time non-driver, I know getting back in front of a wheel would be difficult because I navigate mainly with my feet. Or rather, between curbs, traffic is a non-issue. I don’t need to pay attention to other drivers, or look for people darting out into the street. I may look at trees or houses or the sky or just daydream until I reach a curb at which point I will look for stoplights, cars, etc.

    It is a very different way of moving through streets than a driver experiences

  2. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer October 9, 2014 at 3:18 am #

    Nice piece ken! Yeah, I’d like to see that studied …but MRIs suck so I’d feel kinda bad putting people through them. I wonder how else we might measure hippocampuses? (hippocampi?)

  3. Cameron Conway
    Cameron Conway October 9, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    This is really interesting. Now, to somehow get an entire neighborhood association under MRI machines while conducting a condo development design review…

    This reminds me of the manipulative, calculated psychology used by modern advertisers, corporations, politicians and other entities that carve out monopolies for themselves. I think that this kind of study is pretty endlessly relevant, but towards what end? I half want to promote policy that acts upon these kinds of findings. Imagine advocating for regional transit investments with a study confirming the stated hippocampus-shrinking hypothesis! Part of me would love to de-ligitimize the claims of anti-change suburbanites.

    The other part is terrified of the what might happen if we start to be able to codify community psychology on a larger scale. What kind of political situation do we get into when we start getting scientific research that essentially suggests that ‘some significant community voices (namely, pro suburban) maybe should be ignored for their own good?’ I guess what I’m saying is: ‘representation in a modern world full of distorting factors like these, how do you do it?’

  4. Dana DeMaster
    DanaD October 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    I couldn’t find the link to the actual study, but Bruce Appleyard out of UC San Diego’s School of Urban Planning, did a study where children who walked were better able to recognize landmarks, had less fear about their environment, and had a better sense of direction than children whose parents drive them everywhere.

    I know for myself, my six-year old, who rides in a bak fiets, walks, and busses a lot more than sits in a car, has a very keen sense of direction and get give landmark-based directions to locations we go to frequently. His car-riding peers do not. He can’t, however, figure out “how the bus knows where we’re going.” I’ve tried to explain the concept of routes. 😉

    I wonder if car-riding vs walking/biking actually makes changes in the developing brain?

    Although it isn’t the study itself, here is link to a blog story about the study.
    http://www.citylab.com/commute/2013/02/kids-who-walk-or-bike-school-concentrate-better-study-shows/4585/

  5. David Markle
    David Markle October 9, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    Except for a few farm kids, few of us learn to drive during early adolescence, but Americans typically learn to drive and usually do it well. Europeans typically differ from Americans in their relationships with the automobile. A statistical difference might show up in a large scale brain study.

    Being a dedicated pedestrian, deep wilderness trekker and frequent driver, I wonder how my hippocampus stacks up.

    I’d worry more about younger generations spending so much time in front of television screens and video games.

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