Is your GPS dulling your brain?

Last week, we posted Digital amnesia: Is Google dulling your memory?

We argued that persistent reliance on Google searching for routine information foregoes opportunities to strengthen your brain’s memory muscles … and,  minimizes the amount of memory “dots” that you have stored — lowering the likelihood of your being able to mentally connect-the-dots to draw insights.


Today. let’s consider another technological advance — our indispensable GPS navigation devices — and their impact on our mental dexterity.


Another of my summer reads was  Build a Better Brain: Using Everyday Neuroscience to Train Your Brain for Motivation, Discipline, Courage, and Mental Sharpness by Peter Hollins.

In the book, Hollins recounts a research study that was done on London cab and taxi drivers in 2000 — before GPS systems were widely adopted.

The fundamental discovery: the taxi drivers had measurably larger hippocampi (the brain’s memory center) than the bus drivers.


Why might that be?

Maybe it’s “selection bias” — that smarter drivers gravitate to cabs instead of busses.

But, Hollins hypothesizes an alternative explanation:

The theory behind their findings was that taxi drivers had to essentially memorize the entire road map of London.

Their destination and best routes varied.

So, they needed to know the best shortcuts and alternate courses to take.

That required in-depth knowledge about every street and alley in town.

The bus drivers, on the other hand, only had to drive a couple of pre-planned routes every day with little or no variation.

They already know the endpoints and the path to take.

They only needed to memorize a few turns and landmarks.

Scientifically speaking:

The London taxi drivers are an illustrative example of how structural neuroplasticitythe creation of brain cells and neural networks — works.

The hippocampus is directly linked to memory-processing.

They taxi drivers spent years cultivating intricate knowledge of the entire grid of London streets.

Their brains became conditioned.

They memorized more and interacted with their memories more on a daily basis, and thus the hippocampi brew larger.

The more they practiced that mental training, the more automatic and quickly their decisions about routes and shortcuts became.

Most interesting is that the cab drivers mental dexterity appeared to be transferable to decision-making situations beyond their navigation tasks.


So, what to do?

Hollins suggests — if you want to sharpen your brain — turn off your GPS.

Revert to old-fashioned maps, memorize your route (and emergency alternates) and make your brain do the work.

Might work … but, count me out on that one.


Follow on Twitter @KenHoma

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