Having a sense of direction may seem overrated when Siri can shoulder that responsibility. But new research found that those who heavily rely on GPS had experience less activity in their hippocampus — the part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation. While not great, this isn’t the end of the world for intellectually engaged adults. It does, however, raise questions about the developing brains of kids.
For the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers asked a small sample of 24 adults to get lost on the busy — and notoriously hard-to-navigate — streets of Soho, London. After walking around the area in real life, participants “walked” the same streets virtually in a lab while hooked up to an MRI. Half of the time they had to figure out how to get to their destination on their own; the other half they were aided by GPS. As predicted, when participants had to navigate for themselves, researchers saw activity in their hippocampi, but when they used GPS this region shut off. Researchers also observed a direct connection between the amount of brain activity and how many options an intersection had. This piles onto past research that showed cab drivers, many of whom used GPS, actually accumulated gray matter in their brains over the years.
“In the long run, having your brain active helps avoid and postpone diseases such as dementia,” Dr. Amir-Homayoun Javadi, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the study, told Fatherly. “Active engagement with navigation is in particular important, as one of the earliest impairments in such diseases is losing sense of space and navigation.” As it’s so important to exercise the brain, Javadi refuses to use GPS at all. In fact, he doesn’t even carry a smartphone; he carries an old Nokia and writes directions on paper. His brain must be buff as hell.
Though Javadi says more research needs to be done on how GPS use impacts children, he says the implications for the developing brain are worth considering and recommends that grownups lead by example. “You see parents walking their kids in strollers and they are constantly on their phone, messaging, Facebooking, calling, taking photos of this and that, Instagram, Snapchat … what would you expect from kids? They do what they see.”
Now, going without Google Maps entirely is like quitting coffee cold turkey: it leads to kids telling stories about daddy screaming anger-words. But, maybe bust out the pocket atlas every now and again.