Using GPS? Scientists Find it's "Bad For Your Brain"
Your spatial memory may be at risk.
If you find that using GPS to get around in your car has become second nature, you might want to rethink that. Relying on GPS and turning off our own internal navigation systems may actually damage the brain and inhibit memory overall. That's the suggestion of a study by neurological researchers, who found that the brains of frequent GPS users were different in a critical way than people who weren't so reliant on the technology. Read on to see how this impacts you and your brain.
A 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports looked at 50 drivers. Researchers found that those who used GPS more often had worse spatial memory—the ability to remember the position of objects and places—when trying to navigate without the mapping technology. When 13 of the participants were retested three years later, more frequent GPS usage was associated with worse spatial memory.
"We did spatial memory tests and found that degradation was correlated to GPS frequency," said Véronique Bohbot, co-author of the study and a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, in the Toronto Star. "There was a difference between people who use GPS every day for every trip and the people who didn't use GPS at all or just occasionally, say, once a month."
"What we've found is that when people have good spatial memory, they have more activity and more grey matter in the hippocampus," said Bohbot. "We also found that people who have better spatial memory have better cognition and less risk of Alzheimer's disease."
Researchers have long believed that a robust hippocampus—one that isn't atrophied (or shrunken)—protects against the development of dementias like Alzheimer's. That's why they advocate for keeping mentally active with age. They boil it down to a truism: You've got to use your brain, or you'll lose it.
"Anthropologists have gone so far as to suggest that navigation needs might have been the starting point for all memories (as discussed in Nicholas Carr's book The Glass Cage)," explained three scientists in a May 2021 article in Scientific American. "For example, mnemonic techniques for remembering large numbers such as the digits of pi often rely on the "memory palace" (or 'method of loci') made famous by Cicero, with multiple floors and connected chambers in which one mentally stores the digits. One can then recall a long sequence of digits through an imaginary navigation."
Experts aren't saying you should never use GPS. "I don't think it's realistic to ask people to completely stop using their GPS," said Bohbot. "But at least we can make suggestions for healthier ways to use the tools that help us navigate." Her suggestions: turn it off on the way home; look at the physical GPS map before you leave and see if you can remember it; don't panic if you get lost—try to find your way back.