Study: Using Satellite Navigation Shuts Down Parts of Your Brain

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
study using satellite navigation shuts down parts of your brain

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.

Join the conversation
4 of 39 comments
  • Orick Orick on Mar 27, 2017

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

  • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 28, 2017

    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.

    • See 1 previous
    • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 29, 2017

      @JPWhite 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".

  • SCE to AUX I charge at home 99% of the time, on a Level 2 charger I installed myself in 2012 for my Leaf. My house is 1967, 150-Amp service, gas dryer and furnace; everything else is electric with no problems. I switched from gas HW to electric HW last year, when my 18-year-old tank finally failed.I charge at a for-pay station maybe a couple times a year.I don't travel more than an hour each way in my Ioniq 1 EV, so I don't deal much with public chargers. Despite a big electric rate increase this year, my car remains ridiculously cheap to operate.
  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.