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Ditch the GPS and Find Your Own Damn Way Home

We’ve come to depend too much on navigating robots — and it could be hurting our brains

Three girls sitting on rear seat of car on road trip looking at a map
Getty Images

“Proceed to the route.”

“Relax,” I tell my car’s GPS. “I’m pulling into a gas station.”

I know there’s no point arguing. It’s like shaking your fist at the weather. But it makes me feel better. In fact, I think I will poke around the Travel Plaza Minimart for a few minutes and return to the route when I feel like it.

Score one for humankind.

I’ll admit GPS is a technical marvel. Almost 95 percent of American motorists rely on it, and I am one of them, a late adopter who spent years relying on maps — physical representations of the world. 

Today I wouldn’t dream of navigating an unfamiliar city without directions from the robot voice in my phone. Best of all is traffic-jam info: Instead of worrying that I’ll be stuck for hours, I see red to the next exit, but then blessed blue for miles ahead!

“You’re still on the fastest route.”

“Thanks, GPS!”

Sitting in traffic, I imagined how GPS might have changed history. Columbus’ iPhone could have told him he’d never find China the way he was going. “Make a U-turn at the Bahamas. Lewis and Clark could have cut their ETA down to 20,000 hours. I pictured Amelia Earhart flying toward Hawaii: “The destination is on your left.

But there’s a downside to GPS. It robs you of your sense of where you are.

People my kids’ age have no sense of geography. They grew up with their phones serving as clock, camera, computer, calculator and compass, and learned to go from here to there by following their phones’ instructions. They may know that New York is east of Chicago, but the only directions that matter to them are left, right and straight.

Which may be bad for their brains — and worse for older brains.

Neuroscientists have suggested that mentally mapping terrain may be the foundation of human memory. For early humans, finding ways to and from the primordial campsite was a matter of life and death. 

“We relied on that as the brain evolved — in hunting and gathering, for example,” says Jennifer Heisz, research chair in Brain Health and Aging at Canada’s McMaster University and author of Move the Body, Heal the Mind. Heisz believes that relying too much on GPS may erode that skill, “and that has consequences. It may be a matter of ‘use it or lose it.’” 

She notes that Alzheimer’s disease “often begins with the loss of our way-finding ability. If we’re not using the neural architecture that has to do with spatial navigation, we risk losing it.”

A 2020 study by neuroscientists Louisa Dahmani and Véronique Bohbot confirmed that GPS users tend to lose the ability to find their own way from place to place. What’s more, “the relationship between GPS use and spatial memory decline is dose-dependent. … The greater use of GPS, the greater decline in spatial memory.” In other words, the more you rely on your phone for directions, the faster you may lose your marbles — or at least shrink your hippocampus, one of the brain’s hubs of learning and memory. According to Bohbot, shrunken hippocampi are linked to Alzheimer’s and depression.

That’s why Heisz and other experts recommend shutting off GPS every chance you get. You can always turn it back on if you get lost. You might let it guide you from a hotel to a restaurant, then find your own way back. “Planning, thinking and remembering,” she says, can be like push-ups for the brain. Simply using a map once in a while “may help stave off aspects of cognitive decline that come with aging.”

For all its virtues and vices, GPS can be delightfully dumb. It often screws up when you’re zeroing in on the end of a trip.     

“The destination is on your right.”

“Wrong. That’s the Grand Canyon.”

And that robot voice might not help when you really need it.

I was on I-84 one night when a one-in-a-million event — a Connecticut tornado — snarled traffic. “Stay in the left lane,” my phone said. But GPS knows spit about tornadoes. I swerved just in time to miss an oak tree falling on the highway.

You can guess what GPS had to say about that.

“Proceed to the route.”

Follow Article Topics: Health-&-Fitness