GPS is changing your brain (and it's not good)
Creating more neural circuits through visual landmarking not only benefits your spatial orientation, it could keep Alzheimer's disease at bay.
- Journalist M.R. O'Connor writes "paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment" could help offset neurodegenerative diseases.
- The initial signs of dementia are short-term memory loss and disorientation; both deal with spatial orientation in some capacity.
- While getting lost is no fun, visual landmarking is an extremely important skill.
The bar to entry to becoming an Uber driver is relatively low: You have to be 21 years old; you have to have driven for at least a year; a license and social security number are necessary. While a background check is required, nothing about actual driving skills or spatial comprehension are noted. Even basic questions about passenger safety are omitted, such as "Will you be driving with your phone in your hand?"
Not so in London. Becoming a taxi driver takes three to four year of study in order to master what the government calls "the Knowledge." Drivers fail roughly eleven times before getting their license; only half of applicants are ever certified. There are 320 routes within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross alone, and that's only recommended as a starting point. It makes sense that British cabbies want Uber out of the city.
In a famous study of London taxi drivers, researchers discovered they exhibit enlarged gray-matter volume in their hippocampus, our brain's internal GPS. This region is responsible for spatial memory and navigation. (It should be noted that knowledge of streets does not translate into all forms of memory.)
The infamous car ride in "European Vacation," aka the Griswold's rollercoaster turnabout ride—"Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!"—might have greatly annoyed the family, but Clark's hippocampus was landmarking the buildings loop by loop. It was a drive he'll likely never forget.
Clark's existential dilemma was lane switching. For many of us, it's simply getting anywhere, a problem GPS is supposed to solve. Indeed, traveling with Waze makes commuting easier than ever. But at what cost?
Journalist M.R. O'Connor believes that consumers could be on the wrong end of the bargain. The author of Wayfinding, a book about how we navigate our environments, argues that being led by an app makes you oblivious to landmarks, which might have negative effects in long-term cognitive health.
This is your brain on GPS
O'Connor cites a follow-up study (of sorts) in London. Participants guided by GPS showed less activity in their hippocampus than those using landmarks to find their way—that is, figuring it out for themselves.
The beauty of problem-solving challenges is that they translate across domains. Creating more neural circuits in your hippocampus not only benefits spatial orientation, it could keep Alzheimer's disease at bay, as that is the first brain region to suffer damage. The initial signs of dementia are short-term memory loss and disorientation, both of which have to do with spatial orientation in some capacity.
It comes down to new experiences combined with a vigilance to learn. As O'Connor writes, we peak in navigation aptitude at around age 19, defaulting to habit as we grow older.
Take the same route to work every day? One simple way of strengthening your hippocampus is to constantly experiment with new routes (i.e. get lost). What you lose in time you gain in cognitive health over the long-term, including potentially staving off depression and anxiety, mental health conditions that are in part affected by neurogenesis in your hippocampal circuit.
Landmarking is an ancient animal skill. We cringe when watching Saharan elephants discover their watering holes barren; we gaze in awe at the annual flamingo mixer in Kenya. Animals are tied to place for survival. GPS, O'Connor argues, is ruining our sense of topophilia, "love of place," a concept that Rebecca Solnit honors in her meditation on walking, Wanderlust, when she describes promenades as "not a way of getting anywhere, but a way of being somewhere." Such a feeling can occur in new destinations provided that you're looking up from your phone.
Our relationship to automobiles is certainly different. Utilitarian constructions, they're designed to get us from A to B with as little friction as possible. Whether walking or driving, navigating our environment is essential to our sense of place, a skill suffering a thousand tiny cuts by our reliance on technology. Our ancestors would never have survived had they not landmarked properly. All conveniences come at a price.
Of course, there are advantages to GPS. Sometimes getting lost sucks. I've found myself completely flustered in two regular haunts—Joshua Tree and Anthony Wayne State Park—walking in circles for hours. And just try to use an app in a city like Lisbon, with its serpentine cobblestone alleys, as confusing a landmark as Saramago's book-length sentences (and as gorgeous).
As frustrating as spatial disorientation is, the trade-off is worth it: You learn a new route. Problem solving, critical thinking, exteroception—skills all strengthened when environmental uncertainty abounds. As Peter C. Whybrow writes in The Well-Tuned Brain:
"The human brain sustains high performance by continuous vigilance and interaction with the real world, not by Web surfing and outsourcing."
There are two practices I've implemented to counter my reliance on GPS, having lived in Los Angeles for eight years:
- When traveling new routes I open Waze, plug in the address, study the route, then minimize the window before driving. As my podcast player is usually on in my car, it's an easy finger flick to bring Waze back up should I get lost.
- When revisiting destinations, I leave early to turn into new neighborhoods. Though Los Angeles can be a confusing city, there are enough major roads to reorient you. You'll discover streets, restaurants, parks, and more that you would have never encountered had you stuck to the same route.
Learning keeps you curious. As Whybrow suggests, outsourcing every struggle is unhelpful. We need to be challenged on a daily basis for optimal health. Just as hormesis ultimately strengthens our body, getting lost aids our brains. A bit of friction makes us stronger animals.
Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.
- Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
- Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
- "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.
- Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
- There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
- "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.
- The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
- The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
- While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.
PAUL RATJE / Contributor
- This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
- UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
- TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.