Having a "sense of direction" might be an apt and illuminating way to describe the ability to navigate without a map, but it's really much more complicated than that—a mystery incorporating our entire neurological framework and that lately-in-the-news piece of our brains called the hippocampus. For Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, M.R. O'Connor traveled the globe in search for masters of GPS-less navigation to record their methods and traditions. She also interviewed biologists whose work demonstrates a connection between self-sufficient route-finding and brain health—especially in the hippocampus, where the foundations memory and storytelling are laid.
But that's not the world we move through. What happens as we become ever more reliant on devices that dictate our every turn? Here O'Connor explores the potential long-term effects of switching our brains off, and our phones on.
Finding Our Way Without GPS: How does the crutch of technology impact our mental processes?
by M.R. O'Connor
Market research predicts estimates that the worldwide number of GPS devices will grow to 7 billion by 2022. But for all their popularity, there are remarkably few studies showing how using these devices affects our perception, memory and experience when we rely on them to navigate. One of the first studies was in 2005 and showed that drivers who used GPS instead of a paper map remembered fewer scenes and landmarks from their route. A couple years later, researchers at Carleton University found that GPS rid drivers of the need to problem-solve and make decisions. And it’s not just using GPS while driving. Using the device while walking seems to change how users move through space: a 2008 study showed people using GPS to ramble made more directional errors than those who relied on paper maps.
In the last couple of years scientists have begun to use neuroimaging to see what is happening in the brain when we use GPS devices, particularly the function that gives us turn-by-turn directions. In 2017, neuroscientist Hugo Spiers at the University College London tested 24 individuals using GPS to navigate London’s Soho neighborhood. The results showed that using the devices essentially switched off an individual’s hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial mapping as well as episodic memory, our recollection of events from the past.
The hippocampus is not only a crucial component of our memory, it is also the neural circuit that builds images of the future. The famous patient H.M., whose hippocampus was removed as an epilepsy treatment, found envisioning the future almost impossible. When asked what he was going to do the next day, he could only manage to say, “Whatever is beneficial.” Simulating the future involves fascinating mental gymnastics, recombining information from our semantic and episodic memory and shaping it into new mental representations. In a way, the human imagination is like a beacon that orients us, helping us to make decisions about where we want to go and how we might get there.
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In light of the hippocampus’s role in future imagining, what are the consequences of decreasing its activity? There are no studies as of yet showing what the long term effects of daily reliance on GPS have on the brain. But the more l learned about the hippocampus and its centrality to human identity and experience, the more I wondered whether continually using a device to tell us where to go could have existential consequences. Might it negatively impact our ability to construct visions of the future, dissolving tomorrow into blank spaces and disorienting us in a far deeper sense?
The best way to stretch the mind, according to the Harvard University landscape historian John Stilgoe, is to explore, preferably on foot and without electronic devices of any kind. GPS, in his view, is the enemy of exploration because to use it you have to know where you want to go beforehand, the opposite of discovery. Even getting lost is an opportunity in his view, one that allows the senses to come alive and heightens one’s capacity for observation. “I feel sorry for your generation,” he told me. “It doesn’t get lost much.” Navigation, as it turns out, may not be something that we excise from our cognition through technology without significant impacts, maybe even influencing our ideas of who we are and where we are going.
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