Saturday, November 20, 2010

Use It or Lose It?

Finally, proof that reliance on a GPS system really does rot your brain.

Researchers at McGill University in Toronto recently reported the results of a test that suggests reliance on GPS navigation may lead to reduced brain function. The researchers took brain scans of adults who were GPS-users and those who were non-GPS users. They found that those who didn't use the devices were found to have higher activity and a greater volume of grey matter in the hippocampus than those who relied on GPS. These adults also did better on a standardized test used in the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, which often precedes the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

This comes on the tail of a study released in 2000 by scientists at University College London that showed that London taxi drivers given brain scans had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. That study also found that the hippocampus grew larger as the taxi drivers spent more time in the job.

Now Boston isn't London, particularly when it comes to driving a cab. In Boston, prospective cabbies take a 10-hour course that ends with a test in which they have to answer brain twisters like "True or False: It's okay to rush customers. That way you have more time for other fares." In London, prosective cabbies have to pass a three- to four-year course which involves learning the layout of 25,000 streets in the city center. Called "The Knowledge," three quarters of those who start the course end up washing out. Still, Boston has its challenges and as I've mentioned before, while a GPS will get you where you want to go, it won't get you there necessarily the fastest or even the shortest route.

All this doesn't mean NASA is going to start recruiting astronauts from the ranks of cab drivers and I'm not going to be a professor at Harvard, but it's interesting to think how all this might correlate with the increasing reliance on similar technology in other professions--say, flying an airliner. I'm not about to get rid of my GPS, but I think I'll turn it off once in a while.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Nose for Trouble

I have been away for three weeks. When I arrive at the garage, there's a new addition to the usual potpourri of aromas that greets me. Standing out among the usual mix of grease, solvents, paint, rotting fast food remnants, stale cigarettes and an overflowing toilet is the acrid and distinct stench of skunk. I ask the dispatcher what stinks (non-metaphorically). He chuckles and tells me the animal apparently took up residence under the building. The owner ordered the mechanic to locate the source of malevolent odor (Hey, why pay for an exterminator?). The mechanic, out of loyalty or a sense of adventure, did as he was told. Armed with a flashlight and broomstick, he squeezed himself underneath the building and following his nose crawled to the skunk's home. A quick visual told him everything he needed to know. Wriggling his way out, he reported back to the owner that the skunk had met an untimely death some time ago and that rats, drawn to the pungency, had begun feasting on its bloated remains. The owner, realizing that his problems were only beginning, told the mechanic to go back and recover the carcass before the building became uninhabitable. The mechanic, who lived in a world of fetid smells and perhaps understood the owner’s problems only in concept, was not a man to shrink from a challenge. He grabbed his flashlight, fixed a hook to the end of the broomstick and crawled back into the bowels of the garage. Finding his way back to the skunk's lair, he maneuvered his body so as to use his improvised tool in such a way as to gaff the stinking remains and haul them out. His eye steady, his aim sure, the mechanic, like those lyrical hunters Ahab or Crocodile Dundee, brought his weapon down on the swollen pelt. But the animal (if that's what you'd call it at that point) was not done. Like the mythical Phoenix, the skunk had taken on new life. It was now a city, a megalopolis, a universe of bacteria ingesting and exhaling the vital components of the former skunk, all of which were contained within a (relatively) airtight membrane. When punctured by the mechanic's hook, that universe, under considerable pressure, exploded—a kind of Big Bang, if you will. The result being that what was left of the former skunk was scattered. There was little left to haul out. Whether or not the mechanic needed a change of clothes, the dispatcher didn't say, but the objective was completed, sort of. The mechanic was unfazed, and there were plenty of other problems to deal with, lingering stink notwithstanding.