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.

GPS device made by Mio company is seen in Gdansk, Poland on 5 March 2017.

Photo by Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • 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.

Photo by Brenan Greene on Unsplash

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.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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