The Dangers of Thinking on Auto-Pilot

December 27th, 2010 in Uncategorized 1 comment

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Dependence on GPS causes you to ignore landmarks needed to build cognitive maps

Dependence on a GPS causes you to ignore external stimuli needed to build cognitive maps

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has revolutionized the way we travel. We are able to “find ourselves” when we get lost and also get directions to anywhere we want to go. However, a recent study suggests that depending too heavily on a GPS can have a negative effect on your brain.

Researchers at McGill University conducted three studies that confirm that there is a link between being an avid GPS user and having difficulty in memory-related tasks. Instead of using spatial-navigation strategies consisting of building cognitive maps to know where you’re going, GPS users may depend on a stimulus-response strategy which determines where to turn based on repetition instead of any external stimulus.

The fMRI images of younger subjects who used the spatial-navigation strategy when compared to older subjects who preferred the stimulus-response strategy when navigating through a virtual maze showed to have increased activity in the hippocampus, the structure in the brain responsible for memory and spatial navigation. Moreover, older adults that preferred spatial-navigation strategies had more gray matter in their hippocampal region than those who preferred the stimulus-response strategy. They also scored higher on standardized cognition tests.

The hippocampus is responsible for memory and navigation

The Hippocampus is the region in the brain responsible for memory and navigation

Although these tests do not confirm causality, it is very possible that the lack of hippocampal activity in the brains of GPS users may lead to atrophy of the hippocampus as they age, which puts them at greater risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The researchers do not suggest getting rid of the GPS all together. However, they recommend that although it might be necessary when going to a new place, it wouldn’t hurt to turn your GPS off in a familiar neighborhood. Although building a cognitive map may take some time, it is well worth it.

GPS addict? It may be eroding your brain – Mental Health on MSNBC
Study: GPS Units Cause Memory and Spatial Problems – Daily Tech