Using GPS Instead of a Map: Another Unintended Consequence?
By: William Sturrock, MD – Eastern Maine Medical Center
We’ve all heard the legends about folks out for a Sunday drive drowning because their GPS unit had sent them down a boat ramp, or dying of exposure when their GPS had sent them over a mountain ridge in the wilderness. We hope that there have been deliberate efforts to improve the technology to prevent these predictable errors. But now researchers at University College in London have suggested there may be other risks to reliance on GPS. They published their findings this past month of adverse effects on the brain when they compared drivers who followed turn-by-turn directions of a satellite navigation system, versus those who found their own way on the streets of London.
They enrolled experienced London drivers in a study that involved sophisticated driving simulators and functional MRI brain scans. The researchers had the drivers find their own way to a familiar destination, and studied the activity in different parts of the brain during the journey. Then the drivers were given a new destination, along with a standard GPS unit programmed get the car to that same destination. When they compared the two groups, they found that the ‘self-navigators’ had significant increased activity involving the areas of brain involved in memory and spatial mapping (hippocampus), as well as in the area involved in planning and decision-making (pre-frontal cortex). When they examined the scans of the same drivers using GPS, they saw that the neural activity in these areas ‘switched off’, according to the report in the journal Nature Communications.
In their subsequent analysis of the results, the researchers postulated that over time, with regular GPS usage, the brain’s ability to navigate could suffer, just as we know that any neural process will become less capable through disuse. Many neurologists support the benefits of word-games, and puzzle-solving in preserving optimal brain health and some have even gone so far as to suggest that these regular ‘exercises’ may prevent or forestall dementia. Similarly, the study leader Hugo Spiers asserted “If you think about the brain as a muscle, then certain activities, like learning the maps of London’s streets, are like body-building.” Indeed, one of the markers for dementia is a decline in spatial awareness, causing those with early symptoms of this condition to become easily befuddled and lost in previously familiar environments
So, what is the bottom line? Well, here is another example of the old adage that if you don’t use, you may lose it. We all accept that it may not be good for your long-term physical health to always drive instead of walk, or take the elevator when you could climb stairs. For brain health, this same principle may mean not always relying on technology to do the thinking for you. Just as there may be unintended benefits of not always using a calculator for every computation, or not relying on a Google search when you cannot remember some historical tidbit, there may be real benefits of getting out that dog-eared ‘Maine Atlas and Gazetteer’ to plan your trip, memorize the sequence of routes, and then keep your eyes on the road as you find your way back to grandmother’s house. And when you get there, challenge her to a game of cribbage as you sit on the porch watching the clouds change color during the sunset on the western sky.
1) Have there been any other studies that support this idea that the brain is like a ‘muscle’ that gets stronger with use?
ANS: Well as a matter of fact there have been. A previous study compared the brain scans of experienced London cabbies to those who only rode as passengers, and found that the cabbies had significantly beefier and more developed hippocampal regions.
2) What are other functions of the hippocampus?
ANS: Apart from spatial awareness, this area of the brain is involved in making new memories as well as the preservation of the memory of facts (real ones, not alternative). Smaller hippocampus regions are associated with dementia. And there are other intriguing links from this region to the amygdyla, the area of the brain that is key to the experience of pleasure. There is consistent research that shows that people suffering from severe depression will also show atrophy of the hippocampus. So if want a really good time, go for a drive with your BFF with the GPS turned off!>