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Is Your GPS System Making You Stupid?

When the electronic calculator first came out, studies showed that the average person’s ability to calculate simple arithmetic decreased. Simple grade-school questions such as 7 multiplied by 12 or 36 divided by 3 became unanswerable without the assistance of our electronic friend. However, within a few years of coming out, the electronic calculator was routinely aiding high school AP calculus students through equations only graduate-level mathematicians had been able to perform a decade earlier. It would seem that electronic calculator technology came with both a cost and a benefit.

Calculator via Shutterstock

Global Positioning Satellite technology, or GPS, is a space-based radio-navigation system owned by the United States government and operated by the United States Air Force. The first satellite was launched in 1978 and the system currently consists of just over 30 orbiting satellites. The first computerized GPS navigation software came out in the late 1980s and is now commonplace in most new cars. Clearly, if GPS navigation technology had a downside followed by a benefit, shouldn’t we be seeing the benefits by now?

Global Positioning Satellite System via

According to an article in The Walrus by Alex Hutchinson, neuropsychologists have identified that for some people the natural navigational skills many of us take for granted are simply not present. For instance, some people do not have the ability to form a cognitive map of their surroundings. In the article, we are told that there are people who, “…get lost every day,” and that, “…they’ve been getting lost since they were children.”

I was recently visiting a friend who had moved to a new city about six months ago. We were driving to my friend’s favorite spot in the city, a place my friend visited several times a week. The directions (I’m not kidding) were to: turn left out on the street in front of the house, turn right when you hit the dead end T-junction, get on the freeway to the right, and get off on the very first exit. Then you came out directly in front of the destination. Having visited this place several times a week for the last 6 months, my friend still needed GPS navigation to get there. It would seem that some people really do not have the ability to form mental cognitive maps of the surroundings. For these folks, GPS navigation software is a perfect and useful technology.

GPS Navigation via wirecutter

What about those of us who do have the ability to form cognitive maps? Are we too reliant on GPS technology? Has GPS navigation software made us stupid?

GPS Logic via Skyzone Africa Group

In a BBC article by Katia Moskvitch, a recent study has found that not only were drivers more likely to get into accidents due to sudden swerves caused by following sudden random GPS navigational changes, but that the software programs actually negatively impacted certain brain functions in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus that are related to learning geography, spatial orientation, and other crucial cognitive functions!

Here is an interesting video on the subject that is well worth watching:

So is it true that GPS navigation systems are making us stupid? Well, logically speaking, if using GPS navigation makes you stupid, then NOT using GPS navigation should make you smarter, yes? Well, a study published in Scientific American found that London taxi drivers, who have to memorize 25,000 streets around the city, have a larger hippocampus than the rest of us… Yes, you read that right; they have bigger brains than us!

London Taxis via Public Domain

Bottom line, GPS navigations systems are making us all stupid. Maybe I’ll just try and navigate myself to my new favorite restaurant on my next visit without using my GPS system. Just say’n!

Keep driving my friends!

My thanks to Jeff and Larry for their invaluable help with this article.

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