Tell Your GPS to Get Lost! (for Your Brain’s Sake)

  • Turn off the robot
  • Find out about the taxi driver advantage
  • Map it out


Dear Reader,

In the past four years, I’ve found myself calling several different cities home.

With each of these moves, I had to find my way to work, school, the grocery, etc. And just like millions of people, I relied on my Global Positioning System, or GPS, to do all the legwork.

You know the drill — just punch in an address into your smartphone or other GPS device and suddenly a magical woman robot voice (I call her Karen) provides you with step-by-step instructions to your destination.

But the problem was I wasn’t just using my GPS to assist in my long multistate moves; I began relying on it for everyday transit.

And it was all too easy — robot Karen would usually give me good directions, and eventually, my destination was on the right.

So what’s the problem? Seems like an easy and convenient way to get around a new area. It was — except I would arrive at my destination without any real recollection of how I got there or the foggiest notion of where I was in the city.

After this happened a few times in each new city, I had to wonder– were all these robot directions wrecking my natural navigational skills?

Granted, I realize using a GPS is a logical way of getting to know a new area without spending your days wandering about or struggling to get to your destination. But I started to feel like it might negate my brain’s natural aptitude for direction.

For instance, instead of bookmarking landmarks, spotting road patterns, or assembling a picture of my surroundings, I was blankly staring at a tiny screen waiting for my next instruction or having a one-way conversation with robot Karen!

Meaning I never really learned my route to work or the grocery store and likely just missed being the cause of several car accidents.

As it turns out, my hunch was right — GPS directions aren’t doing me or anyone else any brain favors.

Today, we will navigate the effects of GPS on your brain and what you can do to regain your sense of direction.

--Going off the Grid

Two separate rat studies help explain how sense of direction works in the brain. The results show that navigational skills are both learned and innate.

Obviously, rats and humans are different animals. However, most mammals have a part of the brain, the hippocampus, that is in charge of both spatial memory and navigation functions. Since navigation is hard-wired in the rats, it’s probably the same story for humans too.

The hard-wiring consists of three different types of course-plotting cells — grid cells, place cells, and head direction cells. These cells work in conjunction to help you sequence your internal GPS when you’re just a baby.

In the rat studies, researchers tracked the neural activity of infant rats. Through this, they found that even newborn rats have fully matured direction cells, specifically head direction cells that help you determine which direction you’re facing. This means the rats have a built-in GPS system from day one. 1,2

Place cells help us chart mental maps, while grid cells are responsible for helping us navigate new territory. The way these cells interact may be the reason why some people have a better sense of direction than others — but they are vital to all of us.

When you use a GPS, you may be reducing the activity of your directional cells, thus experiencing a sort of atrophy in your hippocampus that can result in fuzzy mental maps and reductions of your spatial awareness.

In fact, as a 2006 study found, those who have to depend on mental mapping in their daily work may have more gray matter in the hippocampus than those who don’t. The study discovered that London taxi drivers who spent a good part of their lives deciphering the city’s complicated roadways had larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus than those who didn’t drive cabs – giving them a directional advantage.3

These results prove that the more mental mapping we do, the sharper our navigational skills may become.

--Get Lost!

To further this point, a 2005 study done by the University of Nottingham in England had participants either follow step-by-step directions, like those of a GPS, or a traditional map and asked them to drive to a specific destination.

Once the task was complete, the participants sketched a map of their route and answered questions about landmarks they saw en route. Those who followed the step-by-step instructions not only drew inaccurate maps, they also didn’t remember places they had driven by more than once. 4

The main reason for this spatial deficit — you’re no longer getting lost. Since you don’t have to worry about being misplaced or having to endure the task of recalculating your location, you have the leisure of mostly ignoring what is around you.

Nottingham researcher Gary Burnett explains further, “When you make mistakes, not only does that mean your exposure to the environment is longer — and that helps you learn more things — you also become more engaged in the task. When you miss a turn, you become more focused on analyzing what just happened and where you are and what you need to do.”

Put simply, you need to get lost occasionally in order to find your way.

I am not suggesting your toss your GPS in the garbage — let’s face it, they can be lifesavers— but perhaps refrain from using it when you are going somewhere you frequent but haven’t quite mastered the route yet.

Or pick up a map. Even when you are traveling long distances, you can use a map for the long portions and turn your GPS on when you get closer to your final destination.

Even if you get lost, at least you’ll remember it.

Live well,

Natalie Moore
Managing editor, Living Well Daily

P.S. Again, I urge you to take action and sign up for our FREE event. It may be the most important thing you do for your health this year, and it’s happening tonight! We are going live at 7:00 P.M. EDT, but if you can’t make it, don’t worry, the recording will be available until midnight on April 14.

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[1] Development of the spatial representation system in the rat.

[2] Development of the Hippocampal Cognitive Map in Preweanling Rats

[3] Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers

[4]  The Effect of Vehicle Navigation Systems on the Formation of Cognitive Maps

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