The XX Factor

GPS Is Destroying Your Brain

I have been stuck on a country road twice in my life-once in mud, once in snow. Both times were in the same Honda Civic, with the same fiancé at the wheel, on the same patch of the same road. This road is in Iowa. There is a sign before it that reads something like “Road Impassable During Inclement Weather.” You would think that my fiancé and I would avoid this road after seeing the sign in inclement weather. You would think that my fiancé and I, having gotten stuck once and having had to beg some farmers to pull us out, would thus avoid this road and avoid a second disaster. But the situation was out of our hands. The little green dot said to go down that road. We suspend all judgment before GPS. And as Alex Hutchinson explains in his solid article in The Walrus , GPS really does make you stupid .

Cognitive mapping is a skill that develops with practice and apparently atrophies with lack of use. The kind of spatial information relevant to navigating is stored in the hippocampus. London taxi drivers have famously large hippocampi. Cabbies who have been driving for a long time have larger hippocampi than those who have just started; the size is responsive to the frequency with which navigational skills are called up. Presumably, Mongolian nomads and Inuit hunters have hippocampi to die for. And people who stare at the green dot? According to Hutchinson:

The increase in gps use has meant that people spend less time learning details about their neighbourhoods. British researchers testing cognitive map formation in drivers found that those using gps formed less detailed and accurate maps of their routes than those using paper maps. Similarly, a University of Tokyo study found that pedestrians using gps-enabled cellphones had a harder time figuring out where they were and where they had come from. Their navigational aids, in other words, had allowed them to turn off their hippocampi.

When cognitive mapping skills go undeveloped, we switch to a stimuli-and-response model, which may be part of the reason I find it so hard to disobey my GPS-enabled phone. But none of this necessarily implies that we were better off with the badly folded maps tucked into the backseat pocket. Hutchinson ends the piece with a paean to the pleasures of getting lost. People who love to travel treasure that feeling of disorientation. In strange way that’s an argument for the technology; once you’re totally dependent on GPS to have any sense of your location, you can just turn it off and be blissfully lost wherever you are.