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How The Most Convenient Feature Of Smartphones Is Bad For Our Brains

Smartphone GPS capabilities have created a world where it's almost impossible to get lost. But GPS comes with a price: the human brain's natural ability to navigate.

Sometime in the early 2000s, as cell phones became ubiquitous, people started shedding dozens of random seven digit number sequences from their memories. Why remember phone numbers when we had huge address books always in our pockets, just a click away?

Today, the same might be true for our basic sense of direction. With GPS in cars and phones offering step-by-step navigation, people have been freed to shed—or never truly learn—the mental "maps" they once needed to navigate from Point A to Point B.

Spatial memory is a much more specific kind of memory than rote memorization of phone numbers or formulas. The Boston Globe has a fascinating look this week at what this newer wave of technology-enabled forgetting is doing to our brains.

The newspaper’s overview of a number of research studies suggest that our "mental mapping" capabilities are getting flabby from lack of exercise, and that this has serious effects on our general interactions with the world.

Here are a few examples cited in the article:

  • A 2005 experiment showed that drivers using turn-by-turn directions struggled afterwards to recall details of their route and surroundings, compared to people with paper maps. Many didn’t even realize they’d been driving past the same location twice. A 2008 study in Tokyo and 2010 study in the U.S. showed similar findings for pedestrians.
  • A study in Germany showed that people following cues from GPS devices, where the map always put the person in the center and oriented itself in their direction, indeed had an easier time getting to their destination. But they didn’t remember as much about what they’d passed along the way.
  • McGill University neuroscientists have shown that our brains can physically change from GPS use. People who often follow navigation instructions have less gray matter in their hippocamus, the part of the brain that encodes spatial memories. By contrast, other research has shown that taxi drivers—who give their brains a spatial workout every day—tend to have more gray matter in this area.
  • The amount of brain matter in the hippocampus may have broader implications for our health and well-being, though this correlation is not well understood. People with small ones may be at greater risks for illnesses like dementia and PTSD, for example. In everyday life, well-developed spatial memory also helps with more than literal navigation—it could help a student study for a test, a traveler pack for a vacation, or a manager keep track of various projects.

What may be most worrisome is the sense that we may lose the inclination to be aware of our environments—to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.

As neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot told the Boston Globe: "It’s important for people to take responsibility for their health—including their cognitive health ... We can’t just take the back seat."

[Image: Smartphone via Shutterstock]

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  • shoobe01

    I believe that having strict instructions makes you stupid about navigation. We've even seen, multiple times, people get lost or stuck while coming to a land navigation training class! They used the car GPS or someone else's printed directions and didn't put their brain out into the world to realize that flooded muddy track isn't good for cars.

    As I see it, from way too much experience but admittedly no formal research, mobile turn-by-turn directions has just made this ubiquitous. It used to be that 90% of the time you asked for directions you got something so vague that some trial, error, skill and looking was required to get to a new place. Now, not so much. And your mind sheds tasks it doesn't think it needs; a driver will drive, sing with the radio, drink his coffee and follow directions blindly since that's less cognitive load than thinking about it.  

  • Rebecca Jensen

    WOO HOO! As an active navigation racer (orienteer), I am giddy to have my old school sport be scientifically proven to be good for your brain.