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Which is Better for Your Brain: GPS or Maps?

The latest GPS news is not another app or whiz-bang device for your car or smartphone: it’s a report about the not-always-helpful effects of using technological shortcuts to find your way around. An article in the Boston Globe online,“Do Our Brains Pay a Price for GPS?”, by Leon Neyfakh, makes the case for why the good old-fashioned way of navigating with signs, maps, and directions may be best after all. He writes that, “Technology is disrupting something the human brain is supposed to do well. When we use GPS. . . we remember less about the places we go and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world.”

Neyfakh describes a driving simulator experiment at the University of Nottingham (England) that compared wayfinding by drivers who had step-by-step instructions (similar to those you’d get from a GPS device) with wayfinding by drivers who used paper maps. After the experiment, subjects were debriefed and asked to sketch a rough map of the territory they’d covered. Researcher Gary Burnett found that those who followed the GPS-like instructions performed more poorly than those who followed a map: “They even failed to recognize that they’d been led past certain places twice from different angles.”

While it’s ever-so-tempting to use GPS wherever you go, especially if you’re directionally challenged, keep in mind that finding your way left to your own (non technological) devices can have a positive effect on brain development. According to Dr. Burnett: “When you make mistakes, not only does that mean your exposure to the environment is longer – and that helps you learn more things – you also become more engaged in the task. When you miss a turn, you become more focused on analyzing what just happened and where you are and what you need to do.”

A famous study by another British researcher, Eleanor Maguire, showed that London taxi drivers who had to learn the ins and out of navigating that large, complex city had more “gray matter in the posterior hippocampus (part of the brain) compared with people who were not taxi drivers.” That is, the more you use the part of your brain that encodes spatial locations of places and objects, the bigger that part of your brain becomes!

Neyfakh’s Boston Globe article concludes on a thought-provoking note: “While there’s nothing inherently good about having a big hippocampus, researchers have discovered that people with smaller ones are at higher risk for a range of serious psychiatric disorders, including dementia, schizophrenia, and PTSD. One researchers cautions against concluding that GPS (use) actually puts you at risk for mental decline – there is no study that has ever shown that, she points out – she herself has stopped using GPS.”

Check out the article:

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If you’re directionally challenged you need the book, Directional Sense: How to Find Your Way Around, by Janet R. Carpman and Myron A. Grant.



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