The Current

Overuse of GPS navigation shrinks part of the brain, says researcher

As more people become dependent on the GPS, we may be neglecting an important part of our own brains. In an era of powerful satellite technology, experts suggest practising basic navigation skills, like using maps, to keep the hippocampus active.
Navigation consultant Roger Mckinlay is concerned about the dependence people have on GPS and says we need to think of navigation skills as traditional skills worth having. (Marcus Södervall/Flickr cc)

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On May 12, in Tobermory, Ont., a woman following her GPS drove straight into Georgian Bay. Police say the driver is fine, but GPS mishaps are becoming increasingly common with the expansion of satellite navigational systems.  

Access to GPS is ubiquitous, and according to navigation consultant Roger McKinlay, 80 per cent of the adult population worldwide is likely to own a smartphone by 2020.  

Speaking with The Current, McKinlay argues we are growing dependent on satellite navigation tools, which is all the more worrisome considering the fallibility of GPS: unreliable service indoors or in built-up areas, weak satellite signals, and the presence of hackers.  

We ought to regard, I think, some of the navigation skills as some traditional skills which is really worth having.- Navigation Consultant Roger McKinlay

Veronique Bohbot, McGill University professor and Douglas Hospital neuroscientist, elaborates on the negative impact GPS dependence can have on mental health.  

"If we become dependent on it, it's proof we're not using a part of the brain involved in healthy cognition called the hippocampus," says Bohbot.

Technology writer and researcher Alexandra Samuelsays we should be more mindful of how we use technology in general. "[We] take technology as it's handed to us and we use it as it unfolds, instead of thinking: what is the problem that I want to solve."

How reliant are you on GPS? Are you afraid you've lost your navigational skills?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Marc Apollonio.

Ever wonder what it would be like to what have actor Morgan Freeman tell you how to get on the highway and give you life advice from the console?