Skip to content

THE BALANCED LIFE | Use it or lose it: GPS reliance is bad for your brain

O ur small band of four cyclists had already ridden 90 kilometres, and we were getting worried about the distance still required to cycle back to our hotel.

Our small band of four cyclists had already ridden 90 kilometres, and we were getting worried about the distance still required to cycle back to our hotel. We’d wandered north and west from Aberdeen, North Carolina, over sand hills and through luxurious pine forests, following back roads with little traffic or roadside signage, revelling in an early March week of cycling. Aberdeen was still too chilly for the thousands of northern golfers who would soon swarm the area to sneak in early-season practice rounds, with the enticement of off-season hotels and motels being inexpensive, restaurants unrushed, and the rural roads leading to the middle-of-nowhere nice and quiet.

We stood astride our bikes in the parking lot of an abandoned gas station which had once been the centrepiece of the dozen or so modest homes that made up this community, whatever its name might be. That was our problem.

Ron’s GPS told him we were west of Handy, on Handy Road. By riding a few kilometres further west we’d meet South Main Street Extension, then a crossroad at Clear Springs where we could turn left and head to our hotel. The Main Street of what or where wasn’t revealed, which complicated things.

Mike’s GPS said we were nowhere at the moment, but were approaching the intersection of NC 2522 and NC 2501. It refused, however, to suggest which way we should turn when we arrived.

Marty’s GPS told us that if we followed Jackson Hill Road to Lookabill Road, we might eventually find our way back, but the route could turn to gravel and then disappear into the massive Uwharrie National Forest. A quick search of Uwharrie NF noted that it was open to hunting all year round and was home to Flintlock Valley Shooting Range, which required facial covering. We imagined John Wesley Hardin rather than an N95 mask. The park’s home page was emblazoned with, “All outdoor recreational activities have inherent risks. Your safety is your responsibility.” Marty’s route lost an impromptu vote, and was dismissed immediately.

My small map stayed folded in my jersey pocket.

While Ron and Mike argued, civilly but intently, on whose GPS was correct, I walked to the closest home to ask for directions. A curious elderly woman kindly opened the door, appearing unfazed by my neon riding costume, bony knees, dark helmet and disco sunglasses. As she explained that there was an intersection “that way” down the road, but she wasn’t sure of the roads’ names, or if there was a town in that direction, her granddaughter drove into the driveway.

I thanked Gramma, and asked her granddaughter if she could tell me what intersection and/or village I’d find if I rode in “that direction.” She replied, sure, no problem, pulled out her phone, opened Google maps, and said, “This’ll just take a minute.” I was dumbstruck. Five miles away from her Gramma’s home at most, and she pulled out an electronic device to find out if there was a town there.

Turned out her Google map was equally as confused as our GPSs, so I returned to the guys, who were still debating which direction to ride. I glanced at my sweaty map, looked at my watch, up at the sun, figured out which direction was most probably south, and declared that I was riding in that direction, departing now, and anyone was welcome to join me. As we rode away, I desperately hoped we were headed toward Uwharrie National Forest and that we’d meet that one aged hunter, maybe living off the grid, who might actually know where the hell we were.

I desperately hoped we were headed toward Uwharrie National Forest and that we’d meet that one aged hunter, maybe living off the grid, who might actually know where the hell we were

A 2020 study released by Veronique D. Bohbot, Department of Psychiatry, and Louisa Dahmani, PhD Neuroscience, at McGill University, titled, “Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation,” indicates that by regularly relying on a GPS to guide us along the world’s highways, we’re doing our brain’s hippocampus, and ourselves, a significant disservice.

The hippocampus, embedded deep in the temporal lobe of our cerebral cortex, is vital to memory encoding and consolidation (storage), spatial navigation, and for regulating learning. Existing science has proven that impaired hippocampal function slows our learning process, reduces our ability to acquire, store and recall information about our location within a specific environments, and inhibits our ability to control goal-directed behaviour.

The intention of the McGill study was to discover if increased GPS use affected our hippocampus’ spatial memory strategy function negatively, decreasing our spatial learning ability, episodic memory, and relational memory. By using spatial memory strategy, our brain attempts to learn the relative position of landmarks and other location indicators to create a cognitive map of our environment for immediate directional decisions, and ideally, to store the information for later use too.

In very simple terms, the study’s trials consisted of learning the position of objects placed in a maze containing various paths, then monitoring participants’ success in recognizing those same paths via spatial clues to locate the objects a second time after all the paths had been repositioned. This would test spatial learning, spatial reasoning and spatial memory.

The study included 50 participants, 18 females and 32 males with a youthful mean age of 27. The group were all regular commuters within Montreal, and had used their GPSs for wayfinding for various numbers of years. Thirteen of the participants returned three and a half years later for a follow-up study. Both studies were extremely rigorous in attempting to eliminate factors other than GPS use that might influence the subjects’ spatial recognition abilities.

The study concluded, “There was a significant negative correlation (in the trials) which indicates that as GPS reliance increases, spatial memory strategy decreases.”

As we condition our brains to feel comfortable allowing technology to guide us to our destinations, they no longer bother to search out or memorize the physical indicators which previously would have assisted us to find our way. On a broader scale, our hippocampus is surrendering its ability to learn from previous mistakes.

On a broader scale, our hippocampus is surrendering its ability to learn from previous mistakes

Map-drawing was part of the trials. Those who used their GPS the most had more difficulty forming a cognitive map because they had mentally encoded fewer landmarks, and hence had less reference points from which to draw. The study also showed that the more frequent GPS users had greater difficulty in simply learning the location of the objects.

In conclusion, the authors stated, “Therefore, GPS use not only affects the extent to which people use spatial strategies, but also their ability to use spatial memory abilities effectively.”

For a layperson like me, the possibility of losing the ability to use my abilities is not something I want to hear. Questions abound.

A May 2021 Scientific American article responded to Bohbot and Dahmani’s study by acknowledging its veracity, yet suggested we replace visual GPS navigation with audio navigation to avoid damage to the hippocampus. Each location of interest would be given a unique audio beacon, which we could locate via earbuds, headphones or our smart phones, and use it to find our way. Not surprisingly, Microsoft offers an app called Soundscape, “A map delivered in 3D sound.”

Enough. As we allow technology to gradually (if we resist), or quickly (if we embrace), strip away the basic, complex, and varied daily tasks our brain must perform, are we destined to degrade or lose those abilities in our lifetime, in a generation, or in three and a half years, as the GPS users in the study did?

We found that grizzled North Carolina hunter who knew where he was, physically on the ground rather than in the virtual world, and he directed us home. We turned right after the little creek, but not the one with the waterfall, then left at Bill Smith’s farm, the name was on the mailbox, etc., just as he had explained, and arrived back in Aberdeen.

There was a lesson learned that day, and it was much more significant than simply finding our way home. After learning of the McGill study, score one for the Luddites.