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October 12, 2012

STAWAR: Will GPS shrink your brain?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — It’s time to eat my words. Back in July I teased our oldest son for getting my wife Diane a Global Positioning System, or GPS, for her birthday, since she’s not exactly a gadget person. Then we went on vacation and used it to get everywhere.

I can’t believe how convenient it was, how much time it saved and how much frustration it prevented. Diane said it was like having a knowledgeable local resident in the car with us, telling us when to turn. It was much better than the polite gentleman in Savannah, Ga., who explained in detail how the city streets were laid out and then proceeded to send us four blocks in the wrong direction in the excruciating midday heat.

I’m not what the late University of New Mexico sociologist Everett M. Rogers called an “early adopter.” A survey conducted last year by the Consumer Electronics Association, revealed that more than 77 percent of American drivers had access to some sort of navigational device. According to Rogers’ 1962 classic, “Diffusion of Innovations,” that number puts me somewhere between being part of the “late majority” and, heaven forbid, “laggards.”

 It is estimated that GPS will become a $13 billion industry by next year. I resisted using a GPS for some time and continued using MapQuest and Google maps for probably the same reason that it took so long for me to use an electronic reader. I still don’t fully trust things exclusively on a screen and prefer to have a hard copy in my hands.

As a child, when my father would plan a trip, it would first require going to the “filling station” to obtain current maps. Then it would take hours of pouring over them to try to ascertain the best route. Even then, it was understood that maps weren’t very reliable.

I come by my tendency to get lost naturally, as my father always had a poor sense of direction. He was well known for immediately homing in on the most dangerous section of any large city we passed through, and I think I’ve mentioned how his uncertainty regarding which way to turn once led him to run smack dab into a sign, marking the city limits of Springfield, Ill.

The next step in the evolution of trip planning were the highlighted routes that automobile clubs would prepare for their members. They did most of the dirty work, but even then you still had to be able to read the map and have some idea about how to follow the marked route. I was really impressed when MapQuest.com first allowed you to get printed directions and maps by just plugging in addresses. If you followed each step precisely you no longer needed to really understand the map route. The GPS was the logical next step, where you follow verbal directions. At first I’d spend some time looking at the whole route to get some idea where I was going but now I just plug in the destination and blindly follow directions.

As a result of GPS it seems much harder to actually learn a city or a region. Things could be right next door to each other, but I wouldn’t necessarily know that, since I just make the turns as they come. When we were in Savannah for the first time recently, I never got a very good feel for how to get about the city, although Diane seemed to be able to locate things on the map they gave her at the visitor’s center. Diane is good at Sudoku puzzles and once got the highest score possible on a special IQ test where you made designs out of blocks, blindfolded.

I wondered if people didn’t lose something by not having to comprehend the route they were taking due to the GPS. It seemed to me that being able to read maps and having a spatial understanding, although difficult, was probably good for your mental functioning in some way. It turns out that neuroscientists have actually studied this issue.

There’s a brain structure that relates to our internal understanding of spatial positions, called the hippocampus. When the hippocampus is damaged in animals, it severely interferes with their sense of direction and their ability to locate things. One study found that in London cabbies who did best on the comprehensive city knowledge test that they are required to take, the hippocampus was more active and developed than in those who did poorly on the test.

Usually when people are driving and trying to understand directions, the brain, especially the hippocampus, is active in constructing an internal mental map. Women’s mental maps typically include a lot of physical landmarks that must be remembered. Men’s maps tend to emphasize vectors of direction and distances traveled. When a GPS is used, however, the dynamics change and people start to just attend to the verbal cues from the device. They start to blindly follow directions and don’t bother to learn the way by creating their own mental maps.

In 2010 researchers at McGill University reported that people who use a GPS showed lower hippocampal activity and less structural volume than people who got around on their own. The effect also seems to go beyond just finding locations, as non-GPS users consistently performed better on other memory tests.

Thus over-reliance on the GPS may have a significant cost in terms of potential loss of memory capacity and spatial reasoning. When it comes to brain functioning it’s “use it or lose it.” Lead McGill researcher Veronique Bohbot, a psychiatry professor, said, “decreased volume in the hippocampus is a risk factor for conversion from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease.”

She recommends that people only use the GPS to find locations they’ve never been to before. Of course, we should remember that a study in the United Kingdom revealed that 83 percent of male drivers and about 75 percent of women occasionally ignore or disobey their GPS directions anyway, which may not be such a bad thing after all.

Psychology Today Blogger Ron Doyle takes it a step further suggesting several strategies to keep your GPS from shrinking your brain. He recommends to 1. Use you GPS to get places, but drive home on your own; 2. limit the number of times you use your GPS to get somewhere so that you eventually learn the route; 3. Turn your GPS uses into a game where you try to learn or guess the right route, and finally; 4. Mute the annoying voice, so that you still use the maps, but come up with street names yourself.

Most GPS come with a variety of voices. On ours, you can choose from several free voices, purchase celebrity ones or record your own.

Depending on the GPS brand, you can get the voices of Snoop Dogg, Darth Vader, Bugs Bunny, Homer Simpson, John Cleese, Kim Cattrall, Mr T., Sean Connery, Ozzy Osbourne, David Hasselhoff, KITT the Knight Rider Car, Daria, Gary Busey, and many others. Earlier this year it was rumored that Bob Dylan’s voice would soon be available, but that turned out to be a joke, even though it was more plausible than his actual Christmas album.

I made a GPS recording for Diane of my own voice, bossily telling her how to drive the car. She didn’t think it was as funny as I did.

In all truth, it was a rather annoying voice and if it doesn’t cost you a few brain cells, nothing will.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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