Using GPS Makes You “Dumber”

Over-reliance on GPS technology can decrease or eliminate the brain's navigational skills.

Over-reliance on GPS technology can decrease or eliminate the brain’s navigational skills.

If you or anyone you know has a GPS in their automobile or cell phone, then you know how useful this technology is. Among other things, it helps navigate from one location to another, displays electronically the distance between the two locations, and calculates the amount of time necessary to travel from one location to the other.  Now a new study from University College London indicates that using the GPS too often can make you stupid.

In the study, scientists connected 24 subjects to an fMRI machine and studied parts of their brains as the subjects made their way through a simulated version of a London neighborhood. Two parts of the brain were of interest to the researchers. One was the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for memory and navigation; the other was the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain used for planning and decision-making.

When subjects had to find their way through the streets manually, there was a spike in activity in both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. However, when the subjects navigated the streets following instructions from a GPS, there was no activity in those regions of the brain. It seemed that the GPS deactivated those regions of the brain. However, greater navigation options, as when subjects were required to find their own way, boosted brain activity.

Researchers noted that this shift in activity could free up the brain for other mental tasks, but they also noted that over time the brain’s ability to navigate could diminish, making you “dumber” in navigational skills.

Hugo Spiers, the researcher who led the study said, “If you think about the brain as a muscle, then certain activities, like learning the maps of London’s streets, are like bodybuilding, and all we can really say from our new findings is that you’re not working out these particular bits of the brain when you’re relying on [GPS].”

The results of the study were detailed in the journal Nature Communications.


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