More frequent use of GPS is associated with poorer spatial memory

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If you find that using GPS to get around in your car has become second nature, you might want to rethink that. Relying on GPS and disabling our own internal navigation systems can actually damage the brain and inhibit memory in general. That’s the suggestion of a study by neurology researchers, who found that the brains of frequent GPS users were critically different from those of people who weren’t so tech-dependent. Read on to see how it affects you and your brain.

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A 2020 study published in the journal Scientific reports watched 50 pilots. The researchers found that those who used GPS more often had poorer spatial memory – the ability to remember the position of objects and places – when trying to navigate without the mapping technology. When 13 of the participants were retested three years later, more frequent GPS use was associated with poorer spatial memory.

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“We did spatial memory tests and found that the degradation was correlated with GPS frequency,” said Véronique Bohbot, study co-author and professor of psychiatry at McGill University, in the Toronto Star. “There was a difference between people who used GPS every day for every trip and people who didn’t use GPS at all or only occasionally, say once a month.”

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“What we found was that when people have good spatial memory, they have more activity and more gray matter in the hippocampus,” Bohbot said. “We also found that people who have better spatial memory have better cognition and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Researchers have long believed that a robust hippocampus – one that is not atrophied (or shrunken) – protects against the development of dementias like Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why they advocate staying mentally active as you age. They boil it down to a truism: you have to use your brain or you’ll lose it.

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“Anthropologists have gone so far as to suggest that navigational needs may have been the starting point of all memories (as discussed in Nicholas Carr’s book The glass cage),” explained three scientists in a May 2021 article in American Scientist. “For example, mnemonic techniques for remembering large numbers such as the digits of pi often rely on the ‘memory palace’ (or ‘places method’) made famous by Cicero, with multiple floors and chambers in which we mentally store the digits. We can then recall a long sequence of digits through an imaginary navigation.”

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The experts aren’t saying you should never use GPS. “I don’t think it’s realistic to ask people to completely stop using their GPS,” Bohbot said. “But at least we can make suggestions for healthier ways to use the tools that help us navigate.” His suggestions: turn it off on the way home; look at the physical GPS map before you go and see if you remember; don’t panic if you get lost, try to find your way back.

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