Navigation Systems May Dull Our Brains, Study Says

Mapping Progress: GPS Navigation is the Best In-Car Technology

We’ve all battled over driving directions. One person insists on following the prescribed GPS route while another, shouting to be heard over the voice guidance, claims there’s a better way that the dumb computer couldn’t possibly know. Either method might get you there, but one may actually improve brain function. 

A new study by University College London found that two areas of the brain—the memory- and direction-related hippocampus and the decision-making prefrontal cortex—saw “spikes of activity” when people turned down new streets or had several streets they could freely choose along their route. The researchers compared the brain scans of 24 volunteers in a driving simulation of central London, some with fixed routes to a destination and some without. Drivers following a navigation system saw no additional activity in those areas of their brains, whereas those left vulnerable to London’s tangled web of streets were essentially firing on all cylinders: plotting, deciding, and reaping the rewards (or pitfalls) of their discoveries.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Revision notes during a 'Knowledge' lesson at the West London Knowledge School on December 03, 2014 in London, England. London's Black Cab drivers are required to pass 'The Knowledge' in order to be issued with a Hackney Carriage Licence. On average, between three and four years of lessons and practice are needed to acquire this knowledge. London taxis drivers don't use GPS navigation devices, as they are meant to know the city by heart, preferring to rely on their memory rather than on modern technologies. London's licensed black taxi drivers have been campaigning recently against the introduction of the 'Uber' taxi smartphone app in the United kingdom. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

“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,” Hugo Spiers, a UCL professor of experimental psychology, said in a press release. “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.”

A 2011 study of London taxi drivers found that after they took the Knowledge—a driving test that basically requires cabbies to memorize the entire city—the actual size of their hippocampi was enlarged compared to drivers who hadn’t, according to the journal Nature. Even getting lost puts “high demands” on these parts of the brain, Spiers said. If nothing else, thinking about where you are in time and space is a healthy thing.

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But while neuroscientists agree the best way to keep our brains active is to use them, following technology does have its advantages. Today’s best in-car navigation systems can reroute us to alternative roads to avoid traffic tie-ups altogether, while apps like Waze have an almost local expertise of a town’s back streets (to the detriment of many locals). We might have never found such roads without interactive maps, which are now so detailed that it’s easier than ever to spot side streets, trace them for miles, and find out where they’ll lead us.

(Of course, sometimes the scenic route, as we’ve found out, is really best avoided.)


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