August 5, 2019

An opinion piece recently published in the Washington Post argued that the rise of GPS navigation might be "ruining your brain" by undermining brain function, but in an interview with Vox's Brian Resnick, neuroscientist Kate Jeffery explains why that's unlikely.  

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The case that GPS navigation could be bad for your brain

Writing in the Post's opinion section, M.R. O'Connor, a science journalist, asserts that extensive use of GPS navigation "affect[s] perception and judgment." GPS, O'Connor explains, "relieves [users] of the need to create their own routes and remember them," which leads people to "pay less attention to their surroundings."

He cites a 2017 study in Nature that he says shows how "brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions." The study compared activity in the brain's hippocampus—which is responsible for spatial navigation—between a group of people who navigated with a GPS and a group who navigated without one. The researchers found more activity in the brain's hippocampus when people did not use a GPS.

"Studies have long shown the hippocampus is highly susceptible to experience," O'Connor writes. However, he warns, "What isn't known is the effect of GPS use on hippocampal function when employed daily over long periods of time."

 A neuroscientists sees things differently

In response to O'Connor's piece, Vox's Resnick wanted to get a clearer idea of GPS navigation's potential effects on the brain, so he sat down with Jeffery of University College London, who studies how brains navigate.

When asked what she thinks of how GPS navigation could affect the brain, Jeffery said she would be, "surprised if we started seeing hippocampal atrophy as a result of GPS." She noted that even though people might not spend as much time navigating streets as they did in the past, her impression is that "their hippocampi are probably still pretty busy." For instance, she noted that people today "spend a lot more time navigating the online world or in the virtual world," than in the past.

In addition, Jeffery said that while GPS navigation likely has "replaced a small part of what the hippocampus might have ordinarily done," that region of the brain is still being stimulated as a person navigates to their designated location.  Jeffery explains, "[A]ll the other things with getting yourself to the door and then downstairs and all that kind of stuff, just finding your way around, that's still using the hippocampus in just the same way as always." She adds, "I think to the extent that GPS is replacing hippocampal function, it's likely to be a really minuscule amount."

The fourth dimension

Further, Jeffery suggested that technology, namely virtual reality, could hold the potential to help our brains "comprehend" a new "four-dimensional space." She explained, "So just like you can move diagonally [in three dimensions], … you could also move 'diagonally' [in four dimensions,] where one of those dimensions was in a hot-cold dimension and that takes you to this space that’s got a little bit of three-dimensional reality and a little bit of this other dimension."

Jeffery acknowledged that scientists don't know if this experience would actually activate a form of fourth dimensional thinking in the brain. "But it might be that as adults, we never have this capacity, but possibly if children were exposed to four-dimensional virtual reality, maybe they could become as competent in thinking four-dimensionally as we are in thinking three-dimensionally, I don't know!" (Resnick, Vox, 7/24; O'Connor, Washington Post, 6/5).

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