For Travelers, GPS Is the Brain’s Enemy



For years, I used to make the two-hour drive from Bakersfield, Calif., to Los Angeles to visit some good friends of mine. These friends lived in Northridge — a sprawling suburb on the outskirts of L.A. whose biggest claim to fame is having one of the costliest earthquakes in U.S. history named after it (the 1994 Northridge Earthquake). To get there, you must weave through soul-grinding L.A. traffic to take one of the first exits into the outer orbit of L.A.’s sprawling municipality. Now, understand: I’ve made this trip several times. By extension, I have taken this exit several times. And yet, if you asked me for directions to Northridge, I couldn’t tell you where to turn off the freeway. I couldn’t even describe a decent landmark for you. And that’s because I’ve never needed to pay attention to these specific details while traveling. Instead, I let my GPS do all the navigating for me.

GPS systems really took off in the mid-2000s. Today, thanks to smartphones and GPS devices, they are practically ubiquitous. The days of stopping at the side of the road to unfold maps like cumbersome geographic fans are over. These days, we have the dulcet tones of GPS navigators to lead us to our destinations. Their patrician voices tell us to turn right, to head straight; they even inform us when we have arrived at our destination. We barely have to think about where we’re going. Convenience, as always, is the name of the game in technology. Unfortunately, the road to cognitive decline is often paved in technological conveniences.

Studies at McGill University demonstrated that avid GPS users may have a higher risk of damaging their hippocampus — the part of the brain that consolidates information from long and short-term memory and informs spatial navigation. Humans generally have two navigational methods:

  • Spatial navigation strategy — landmarks and other visual cues are used to build cognitive maps that help us figure out where we are.
  • Stimulus-response strategy — a sort of cognitive autopilot in which we make turns at certain places because repetition has taught us the best way to reach a specific destination.

Guess which one of these is more closely associated with GPS? Stimulus-response. Guess which one produced more activity in the hippocampus and led people to score higher on standardized cognition tests? Spatial navigation. Yes, when McGill researchers performed fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) on people who navigate spatially versus those who navigate using stimulus-response, they observed those who navigate spatially have increased activity in the hippocampus. Generally speaking, increased cognitive activity is good.

Now, guess which one of the groups is at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s?

Stimulus-response — the GPS zombies. It’s not quite as simple as that, but the findings shouldn’t be ignored. While young, healthy adults tend to spontaneously use spatial navigation while navigating a virtual maze, older adults tend to use stimulus-response, relying on habit and navigational repetition. The McGill findings suggest that a shift in navigation strategies occurs as people grow older. Because stimulus-response is aligned more with aging and decreased cognitive activity, it’s suspected that this can lead to atrophy of the hippocampus — a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

These two navigational strategies are analogous to psychologist Raymond Cattell’s concept of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence, like spatial navigation, encompasses the ability to reason abstractly and solve problems independent of previous experience, learning and education. Fluid intelligence tends to decline during late adulthood. Crystallized intelligence encompasses knowledge gleaned from prior experiences and learning, used to accomplish tasks that involve things like reading comprehension and vocabulary exams. Crystallized intelligence is rooted in fact and experience, and increases with age, not unlike the dependence on stimulus-response navigational strategies.

One of the interesting things about the McGill study is that it found that adults who used spatial strategies (read: the non-GPS strategies) had higher amounts of grey matter in their hippocampus, meaning that utilizing spatial navigation led to more robust brain activity in these adults. Grey matter is linked to experience and knowledge that has been coded into your brain; it’s the “stuff you know.” There’s a second kind of matter that marbles your brain called white matter — the synapses that form quick and flexible connections in response to information. Cattell’s concept of crystallized intelligence closely resembles grey matter: fact and knowledge that expands with experience. Yet as people get older, they tend to use familiarity as a crutch, as evidenced by the switch from spatial to stimulus-response strategies. So what’s to be made of all this?

What’s really at stake here — with GPS and with most technology — is the interaction between fluid and crystalized intelligence, between white matter and grey matter, between stimulus-response navigation and spatial mapping. Ideally, human beings would use spatial navigation to feed stimulus-response. GPS isn’t replacing our ability to navigate; it’s replacing one particular aspect of human navigation: spatial memory. GPS acts like an enormous, pre-made spatial memory that people can access on the go. To be fair, maps used to do a similar thing, but GPS has the advantage of visually representing our location in real time and aurally guiding us when we need to react to changes in navigation. At least with maps, people still had to connect a static representation of spatial memory to their real-world surroundings; there was no patrician voice to tell them when to turn and no glowing dot mirroring their movements along highlighted routes.

Coordination is key to cognitive development. The thing about Cattell’s concept of crystallized and fluid intelligence is that the two are interwoven. Our ability to solve puzzles and problems and act independently to new information informs the information we gather and crystalize into experience and learning — and vice-versa: what we know from experience informs how we process new information. As Novel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes: When we pay close attention to new information, we associate it “meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.” It’s no big surprise that I can’t tell you anything about how to get to Northridge from Bakersfield; I haven’t deliberated meaningfully on the spatial information to get there. I allowed GPS to act as my spatial memory and dictate my stimulus-response navigation. I haven’t crystallized intelligence around, say, a landmark where you turn off the 405, and I definitely haven’t crystallized intelligence regarding the name of the exit.

While this seems troubling, it’s better to bear in mind that GPS technology isn’t necessarily hurting or damaging our brains: It’s changing them. Shifts in cognition allow us to excel at different tasks. In 2009, Patricia Greenfield, a developmental psychologist at UCLA, published an article in Science reviewing dozens of studies that dealt with how new media is effecting our cognitive abilities. Greenfield concluded that our increased interaction with screen-based media has strengthened our visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve our abilities to do jobs with lots of rapidly changing signals (e.g. piloting a plane, monitoring a patient during surgery). But this is accompanied by new weaknesses in higher-order cognition associated with vocabulary, “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” In a 2010 article for Telegraph, Nicolas Carr concludes poignantly from Greenfield’s findings:

“We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.”

Put me back on the 405, southbound to Los Angeles, glancing at my GPS to know when I need to turn off the freeway. In this moment, I’m not utilizing crystallized intelligence; and, in reality, I’m barely utilizing fluid intelligence, since the GPS is analyzing all the possible routes and making navigational decisions for me. But take away the GPS — let’s pretend it malfunctions, let’s imagine a solar flare scrambles the satellites and tosses me into navigational oblivion. Suddenly I’m lost and uncertain about where I need to go. I’m fully engaged with my surroundings. What do we sacrifice to technological convenience? Memory? Attention? For me, I know that I sacrifice the ability to tell people, “Heading to Northridge? Just head down the 405 and take the exit at _________. You can’t miss it.”


Anthony Martinez is a student pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Emerson College. Follow him @afidelmartinez.

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