By on March 27, 2017

navigation car GPS

A new study suggests drivers who follow GPS directions regularly do not engage their hippocampus, highly limiting the development of an internal map and making them more dependent on navigation devices. We’ve all heard accounts of London cabbies with juicy, swollen central lobes, stemming from the requisite training and memorization of city streets and landmarks. It turns out the inverse may also be true. This may be another classic case of if you don’t use it, you lose it.

The University College London discovered the hippocampus (used for direction and memory) and the prefrontal cortex (used for decision-making) both saw elevated levels of activity whenever drivers turned down unfamiliar streets or had free-choice to follow along their route. However, those making use of navigational systems produced no additional activity in those areas whatsoever. Zero, zilch, nada. 

The researchers’ experiment monitored the brains of 24 volunteers during driving simulations of central London, some with fixed routes to a destination and some without. Those without may have made it to their destinations on-time, but the extreme lack of mental energy exerted by those two areas was on par with someone watching an episode of The View.

“Our results fit with models in which the hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths, while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination,” said Hugo Spiers, director of science at Centric labs. “When we have technology telling us which way to go, however, these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network. In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”

Even getting lost exercises these parts of the brain, Spiers said, meaning even if you are flummoxed or frustrated, you are still exercising your mind strengthening your gray matter.

Of course, the upside of allowing your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to wither and die through the use of electronic navigational assistance is smoother sailing through traffic or convoluted roadways. There are some places where tapping your GPS for guidance could shave an hour off the trip and, for those areas, asking for a little help is a no brainer. The downside is that you’ll never get any better at traversing that particular zone without a digital aid and have a frontal lobe resembling a half piece of chewed-up gum.

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39 Comments on “Study: Using Satellite Navigation Shuts Down Parts of Your Brain...”

  • avatar

    In the world of general aviation, it’s called “flying the magenta line” in reference to the moving-map with the overlaid course line.

    When you learn to fly, it’s all paper charts, E6B mechanical computers, weather reports obtained from METARs or from weather briefings and a written flight log showing the various short sections. You fly the course looking at the chart and comparing it to what you see out the window. Errors are, hopefully, identified and corrected. It’s actually a lot of fun, but *everyone* abandons it in favor of the magenta line as it’s *so* much easier.

  • avatar

    Meh; I’ve always had a terrible sense of direction… that part of my brain doesn’t work that well anyway, so I use the GPS quite a bit.

    In an interesting twist, while I have a bad sense of direction, I can read maps just fine. My wife is the opposite; she has a good sense of direction, but has great difficulty reading maps.

  • avatar
    Corey Lewis

    Yuck, clean that dirty phone charger.

  • avatar

    Eh, I read a study that warned me that I shouldn’t put too much stock in studies.

  • avatar

    If you don’t develop your own mental map of your surroundings, you’ll be dependent on digital navigation forever. Which makes it a successful product, in marketing terms, at least.

  • avatar

    When people began aggregating in villages and specialists began making tools for trade with farmers, we lost the ability to make our own tools and grow our own food.

    When Egyptian farmers relied on priests to decide when to plant, they lost that capability and some of their independence.

    When writing was invented, there was less use for oral histories and the revered folk who passed tales from generation to generation.

    The printing press reduced the need for specialized hand writing, leaving people dependent on typesetters and publishers.

    Books of logarithms eliminated much of the drudgery of calculations, and mechanical calculators, slide rules, and electronic computers have further eroded our ability to do arithmetic in our heads or on paper.

    On and on. Will we never end this reduction in independence? Are we doomed to be an interdependent society, relying on others to do things we used to do ourselves?

  • avatar

    I can get directions from my phone, but I try not to use it too much.

    The fact is, when you rely on the phone to get you places, you never stop being lost.

    Which is fine until the phone battery dies or you lose the signal.

  • avatar

    My own, as yet unpublished, study offers two conclusions:

    1. Nearly 84% of motor-vehicle operators effectively shut down their brains when using their vehicles.

    2. 42% of motor-vehicle operators failed to demonstrate any measurable brain function.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t necessarily disagree with your findings, but what was your method?

      • 0 avatar

        Years ago, as a teen approaching driving age, my dad made me read a newspaper article about driver skill. The article stated that 33% of drivers should not have a licence. Roughly two thirds or 63-65% are just fair to average. Roughly 3% were good to excellent. The same article pointed out that when asked to rate their level of driving skill, they will invariably say good or excellent.
        Anecdotally, I’d have to agree with the article my dad showed me. A seasoned Paramedic who gave me driving tips told me that the best approach to driving was to assume that you were invisible to 99% of drivers. The 1% that could see you was out to kill you. I found that advice to be doctrine to literally live by every time I rode a motorcycle.

      • 0 avatar

        I assumed driving skill was normally-distributed based on the Central Limit Theorem (that the factors governing driving skill are additive and many), then I calculated the percentage of drivers demonstrating driving skill one standard deviation above the mean or greater, 16%, leaving the balance of the population equal to 84%. I then assumed that half of the remaining population drives without any brain function, 84%/2 = 42%.

        These percentages matched my anecdotal, empirical observations, so I fired off this post.

        Please provide comments and we’ll consider it “peer reviewed”.

        • 0 avatar

          @319583076 –

          “I then assumed that half of the remaining population drives without any brain function, 84%/2 = 42%.”
          Point 1:
          One could consider 42% being close to the 33% I mentioned.
          Point 2:
          “without any brain function”
          That would refer to “higher” brain function. A lack of higher brain function with negligible brain stem function i.e. absent reflexes and absent drive to breath would be by definition, clinical brain death.
          The absence of higher brain function with intact reflexes and brain stem function would be referred to as ‘persistent vegetative state.”

          One could argue that for many, driving does place one in such a state.

          Consider yourself “peer reviewed”. LOL

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    My GPS always wants me to take the major roads. She gets cranky when I start to take shortcuts. First there is the pleading to make a u turn to which I have some creative verbal replies which are NSFW. Then comes the “calculating: alternate route routine”. Finally she stops with the nagging and gets me on the route I want to take. So, I feel that I’m getting to exercise my verbal skills sort of like yelling at the TV. Great fun!

    • 0 avatar
      Compaq Deskpro

      My iPhone is hell bent on having me go through the most expensive toll possible. This was relieved somewhat when they let you choose from multiple routes.

      • 0 avatar

        I have to wonder if developers are getting a kick back from the toll operators. For me when going down town it almost always picks the toll bridge. When I click the alternate routes button the toll route is billed as the quickest with the route that takes the free bridge almost always being “1 min slower”. When I click on that route to save me $3 the toll route suddenly has a “similar ETA”. What annoys me is that the choice to avoid tolls does not persist. So every time I have to go downtown I have to go through BS to remove that route and show all of the free routes, since it will show only a maximum of 3.

        • 0 avatar


          Use Waze and enable “Avoid Toll Roads” option.

          While part of our brains may not get much use by using a nav system, you do have engage another part of your brain to set the thing up appropriately to meet you individual needs.

          • 0 avatar

            The bits of Waze that Google is letting spill over to their regular maps application is lame so why would I want it to fill my screen with more incorrect information? Just allow the avoid toll roads option to persist on the standard maps app is all I’m asking.

          • 0 avatar

            I tried Waze once and hated it. About 8 times during a 3-hour trip, it told us about accidents or police activity ahead, and not once did we see anything at all when we got to those places, so the information must have been really old.

  • avatar

    I can go out into the forest and I am able to manage reasonably well. The same can be said for remote back country roads but when I go to a high population density area like Vancouver or Calgary, I have a hard time. The problem lies with the pace of traffic. One needs to process the environment and focus on street signs. I personally cannot do that safely enough travelling at the velocity required to keep pace with traffic and not be a hindrance to others. I like the GPS for that aspect. It gives me enough advanced warning of route changes that I can focus more on driving and monitoring traffic around me than upon going the right direction.

  • avatar

    The results of this study doesn’t surprise me much.

    Despite the fact that I do have a good sense of direction and ability to navigate I use the maps function on my phone a lot. It isn’t because I couldn’t get there since most of the time it is used on some place I know how to get to it is used to find the quickest way there or to give a better estimate of how long it should take in current conditions.

    Part of the year I go into downtown every day of the week. Where I live vs downtown there are several good routes. Within those routes there are a couple of sub-routes for at portion of the drive. So the first thing I do when heading out is pull out the phone and see what it says. I then use my knowledge of alternate paths within a particular route and the expectation, based on experience, of whether or not a particular route is going to get better or worse by they time I get to particular points. I then usually stop the navigation and head out. depending on what I saw I may open it again and see if things have changed before I get to a point of choice.

  • avatar

    “Doesn’t engage more than the baseline”, same thing as “shuts down”, “shuts off”, right?

    Way to write headlines and URLs, guys.

    Not clickbaity *at all*.

  • avatar

    Set map to 2d, use north always up function. There you go. Always a mental map in your head.

  • avatar

    Personally, I find the P.G.S. far outperforms the GPS. PGS, you ask? yes, a Paper Geographic System.

    I look at a map. (I will also use Google maps when I don’t own a map of a particular area, plus it’s easier to calculate distance; however Google Maps’ directions are often horsesh** so I always have to zoom in closely on complex areas).

    I write down the directions on a piece of scratch paper and put it in my shirt pocket, referring to it as I drive.

    I don’t believe I have ever actually used a GPS to guide me somewhere. I also almost never get lost.

    If you feel comfortable being a rat in a maze (“turn right, now turn left, now turn right…”) well, good on you. I hope you never have to figure out where you are without your electronic doohickey. You should see how people’s heads explode when I say things like “I think that piece of equipment is in the east lab”. Or when I figure out where I am because it’s afternoon on a winter’s day and the sun is in my eyes so I must be traveling roughly southwest.

    • 0 avatar

      Your evaluation of GPS apps is outdated as your navigational methods.

      GPS systems that only provide directions are sooooooo 20th Century.

      Modern GPS apps like Waze route based on real-time traffic volumes, let you know there is a police trap around the next bend, and a whole host of other hazards.

      The note in your breast pocket can’t provide that kind of information.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry, I don’t believe that knowing where the heck you actually are, as opposed to being a rat in a maze of pipes, is outdated.

        I agree it would be nice to have real-time updating of traffic conditions etc., but I don’t have a smartphone and don’t expect to any time soon so it’s not relevant to me. And using a smartphone to inform you of upcoming traffic issues is only peripherally related to the relationship of GPS navigation to situational awareness and the maintenance of a mental map.

        I can speak from personal experience that when you ask – especially younger – GPS addicts where something is, they generally have no clue.

        “Hold on, hold on, never mind about the distance; _whereabouts_ does the castle lie? What’s the direction from here?”

        “Ah, please you sir, it hath no direction from here; by reason that the road lieth not straight, but turneth evermore; wherefore the direction of its place abideth not, but is some time under the one sky and anon under another, whereso if ye be minded that it is in the east, and wend thitherward, ye shall observe that the way of the road doth yet again turn upon itself by the space of half a circle, and this marvel happing again and yet again and still again, it will grieve you that you had thought by vanities of the mind to thwart and bring to naught the will of Him that giveth not a castle a direction from a place except it pleaseth Him, and if it please Him not, will the rather that even all castles and all directions thereunto vanish out of the earth, leaving the places wherein they tarried desolate and vacant, so warning His creatures that where He will He will, and where He will not He–”

        “Oh, that’s all right, that’s all right, give us a rest; never mind about the direction, _hang_ the direction–”

        Yes, we have regressed to the state of the maiden in “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.

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