GPS is shrinking our brains

Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg, has done studies indicating that the use of GPS has lessened peoples’ ability to create mental maps and spatial understanding of our surroundings.  This is something I’ve certainly experienced—driving somewhere and having no idea geographically where I am.  Using maps you are forced to consider your destination in terms of your current location and the route you’ll take.  GPS of courses allows you to simply follow a series of oddly pronounced lefts and rights.

GRAY MATTER: Is GPS All in Our Heads? from the New York Times, Feb. 2, 2012

Oh well, so it goes, claims a nonplussed Ms. DailyDisgust.  And I guess this is old news in a way, as we take on new technological devices and tools, certain old skills fall by the wayside.  See the effect that spell-check has had on American students’ ability to spell or the effect that kana to kanji conversion in typing has had on Japanese students’ ability to write a plethora of characters.

But THIS MAY BE SHRINKING OUR BRAINS.  That and Ms. Frankenstein cites my favorite scientific study ever that showed actual growth in the brains of taxi drivers in London.  (I drove cab full time for three years, and part-time for another seven.  I currently drive for Yellow Cab of Iowa City on Iowa home-game football Saturdays–give me a shout if you need a ride to or from your tailgate.)

And there is more: The psychologist Eleanor A. Maguire and her colleagues at University College London found that spatial experience actually changes brain structures. As taxi drivers learned the spatial layout of London, the gray matter in their hippocampal areas — that is, the areas of the brain integrating spatial memories — increased. But if the taxi drivers’ internal GPS grew stronger with use, it stands to reason that the process is reversible after disuse. You may degrade your spatial abilities when not training them, as with someone who learned a musical instrument and stopped playing.

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