To GPS or Not GPS? That Is the Question

My husband is “navigationally challenged,” which is a fancy way of saying he gets lost trying to get out of our subdivision. So he bought a GPS, and now he can drive to our local McDonald’s without a problem. I warned him that he’s “dumbing himself down” by using a GPS to get around, but does he listen? No, of course not.

It actually appears that getting lost is a genetic trait in his family. A few of his siblings (he’s one of seven children) can’t find their way around town, either. Who would have thought that good old DNA, along with giving this guy blue eyes, brown hair and skinny legs, would also pass along a “just get lost” gene?

Luckily for my spouse, if the GPS ever has a nervous breakdown from having to direct him all the time, both our daughter and I have a great sense of direction. Not surprisingly, this comes in handy when it comes to sniffing out shopping malls or Mexican restaurants (our favorite food). I can actually read a paper map! And our daughter only has to drive somewhere once, and she can get back to that spot blindfolded. Not that I would suggest that option, mind you.

Researchers say that navigational skills are all in our brain; more specifically, our hippocampus. This is where our long-term memory function is located. Some of us simply have better recognition and spatial memory in that old hippocampus of ours. Before GPS came around, people had to create a map in their mind, or use visual cues as they drove in order to figure out how to get somewhere. GPS eliminates the need for that mapping.

So how does that affect the brain? Going back to my original thought, is my spouse hindering his already minimal navigational skills by depending upon a GPS? According to recent research, it’s a good possibility that he is doing just that. He’s following the directions provided by the technology, and not actually viewing the surroundings. If he tried to get to the same place on his own, he’d like be unable to do so.

Some researchers are concerned that by not using the memory functions our hippocampus provides us, this important part of our brain will shrink. This shrinkage may lead to a higher risk of dementia in later years. Additionally, we may be negatively affecting other cognitive skills as well, because we use mental maps for other functions besides getting from point A to point B.

Other researchers point out that because GPS helps us avoid making mistakes (if we do, the device simply points us back in the right direction) we are hindering our brain skills by not solving those mistakes ourselves. Problem solving strengthens our analytical skills.

The research that’s been conducted has not been conclusive. However, it’s certainly food for thought, since science has shown that challenging our brain is what help keeps in functioning well as we age.

My spouse doesn’t seem overly concerned about the information I’ve turned up on the subject. The bottom line for him is that since he has only a minimal set of navigational skills to begin with, he may as well just use the GPS. Or he can take me along on every trek outside our neighborhood. Since the GPS (he’s named her Bea) doesn’t nag him, I think I know which choice he’ll make. I just won’t let him throw out the good old-fashioned map, just in case we decide to let Bea take a hiatus from navigating.