A memory expert in Montreal has found an association between “habitual” use of GPS and spatial memory deterioration.
Thinking of trying to squeeze in one last road trip before summer’s end?
If so, before you hit the open road, you might want to think about how heavily you rely on a tool that many drivers now go to automatically: GPS (Global Positioning System). It might save you from getting lost, but a memory expert in Montreal has found an association between “habitual” use of GPS and spatial memory deterioration.
“We did spatial memory tests and found that degradation was correlated to GPS frequency,” said Véronique Bohbot, a scientist at the Douglas Research Centre and a professor of psychiatry at McGill University. “There was a difference between people who use GPS every day for every trip and the people who didn’t use GPS at all or just occasionally, say, once a month.”
It’s a commonly held concern that we’re becoming so dependent on certain technologies that we wouldn’t know how to do a number of things without them. The problem with GPS might be far worse, however, because spatial memory isn’t simply a single skill that can be isolated from other brain functions. The hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in spatial memory, is also involved in other types of memory, learning and, as well, emotional behaviour.
“And what we’ve found is that when people have good spatial memory they have more activity and more grey matter in the hippocampus,” said Bohbot, who has been studying the hippocampus since 1988. “We also found that people who have better spatial memory have better cognition and less risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”
She adds that all of this fits in with the larger body of research, which has established that a small or shrunken hippocampus is a leading predictor of a future diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
So what’s going on? Obviously, a lot more research is going to be needed, especially since this is only a correlation — we don’t know if GPS is the cause. Increasingly, though, brain researchers are focused on the fact that humans have their own extremely sophisticated GPS-like abilities. Every time we move around, our own geolocation system kicks into gear and starts working on drawing mental maps.
This mental map system is especially active when we’re lost or forced to figure out new routes, like when we’re travelling somewhere new. That helps with neuroplasticity, which is good for our brain health. So take that road trip if you can.
When our internal GPS isn’t active, though, such as in situations that we know a route so well that we can take it without even thinking about where to turn (or, perhaps, being told when to turn by a friendly voice) another part of the brain, the caudate nucleus, takes over.
The caudate nucleus plays an important role. We need to be able to do some things automatically. If we couldn’t, we’d really never get anything done. Unfortunately, while we’re in automaton mode, the caudate nucleus actually inhibits the hippocampus. These are all normal functions, but if the hippocampus is inhibited too much it might have long-term repercussions, a.k.a. shrinkage.
So the big question is: Should we take our GPS off the dashboard and leave it at home?
Well, if you can, sure. Most people won’t want to, though.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to ask people to completely stop using their GPS,” said Bohbot. “But at least we can make suggestions for healthier ways to use the tools that help us navigate.”
A poll conducted by CAA in 2020 found that 47 per cent of Canadians program a destination into their GPS every time they get in the car. Bohbot suggests trying to get out of the habit of using it every single time.
“If you’re going to use it on your way somewhere, turn it off or close it on the way back,” Bohbot advises. “If you know it’s going to be off, then it’s going to force you to pay attention to the route so you’ll remember where to turn on your way back.”
Another thing you can do is take a moment before you get in the car to look at the actual map display of the route on the GPS. If you can memorize the path, you can try turning off the GPS.
If you forget where to make a turn and get lost, that’s OK. In fact, Bohbot said there’s some evidence that making a wrong turn and losing your way stimulates the hippocampus. Getting lost might be good for brain health.
And, if you’re still not sold on any of this and can’t imagine going back to life before Siri, the best thing you can do is to use as many new routes as possible and always pay close attention to your surroundings.
All of these tips are really designed to make us more mindful of our environment and more active users of our navigational tools, which is good for brain health.
This is the good news part of this story. There’s a lot we can do to help our brains get into better shape, and many of them are actually kind of fun and make us feel good, such as travelling and discovering new things.
So put this story down and go explore something new. Summer is fleeting, after all.