The hippocampus is the part of your brain that works with memory and navigation processes.
It allows you to find your way using spatial orientation, as you find routes from an unfamiliar place, walk in the dark, or follow directions to a location.
The brain is a fantastic organ, but even it is not immune to the changes of the modern world.
As people begin to rely more on technology and GPS, scientists have started to question what effect GPS has on your hippocampus and navigational abilities.
GPS Usage and the Effect on Hippocampus Function
The hippocampus itself is the part of your brain that helps you figure out where you should go. Like any part of your body, your brain benefits from practice and regular usage.
If you use your navigational skills often, the hippocampus can grow and form more neural pathways, improving its overall function.
A study by the University College in London has shown this by analysing the brains of taxi drivers. The brains of these drivers grew and adapted to help them understand the map structure of their city the more they drove.
With 25,000 streets in London that they need to memorise to get around, the greater grey matter they had in their brain. Compared to other people, these drivers had larger hippocampi. These results were replicated in other studies.
These studies showed that older adults who were accustomed to spatial navigation had more grey matter in their brain than younger adults who generally rely on GPS to get around.
There are two significant ways that humans can navigate: spatially or by stimulus-response. The spatial method uses landmarks and visual cues to help us orient ourselves through the development of cognitive maps.
These help us figure out where we’d like to go, storing the map in our brain so that we’re able to reaccess it later.
Stimulus-response navigation is what we use when using GPS, relying on our devices to show us the most efficient route as if on autopilot. For instance, you probably know your way home without even thinking about it.
This is stimulus-response navigation, where you retrace your route out of habit, not necessarily because you’re specifically thinking about how to get home.
Researchers have been performing brain scans on individuals to discern how GPS navigation affects the brain.
After looking at people who use both navigational methods, they found that people using spatial navigation had more activity in their hippocampus.
At the same time, they found that the repeated and excessive usage of GPS could lead to atrophy of the hippocampus as the person ages. This could even put them at a higher risk of cognitive diseases later in life.
Researchers also found that people who had more grey matter in their brains scored higher on standardised tests than people who relied on the stimulus method. This suggests that navigating without a GPS might be better for the brain in the long run.
Nature Communications published a study displaying these findings, as researchers found that certain parts of the brain change in memory, planning and decision-making when you turn on that GPS.
In 24 people who were navigating a simulation of central London’s Soho area, they saw that as people navigated on their own, their brains had higher activation on new streets.
If the person had multiple routes to choose from to get to their destination, there was even higher brain activity. This was compared to volunteers following GPS, who had no increase in brain activity in the long run.
The Modern Age
Navigating helps the hippocampus grow and evolve, but modern navigational technology can inhibit this ability.
As we click into our GPS applications, we become less able to perform skills like map reading and orientation.
More and more people are unable to find their way around in unfamiliar terrain without a GPS. A study by Dr Toru Ishikawa from the University of Tokyo supported these findings.
Three groups of people were asked to find their way around a city on foot, using either GPS or traditional maps. Those people who received paper maps were shown the route beforehand.
However, they walked more quickly and made fewer stops even without GPS. GPS users, by contrast, didn’t remember their terrain very well.
Infact, they were unable to take in their environment, since they were always looking down at their phones.
The Good and the Bad
If we aren’t using our hippocampus on a regular basis, it can’t grow and improve the number of mental maps we can store.
It may even shrink over time, suggesting that continual reliance on GPS may be dangerous for the development of our brains.
Not using GPS often has the potential to make the brain stronger as we age. This could ward off cognitive impairment and conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
On the other hand, using GPS allows your brain to think about other tasks and engage in higher cognitive functions that it couldn’t perform while being occupied by learning directions.
Your hippocampus may not expand, but other regions of your brain could as you relieve the stress you undergo by using GPS. If you’re using your brainless for navigation, more brain space can be used for monitoring accidental threats on the road.
Granted, with so many autopilot safety features, you may be better off training your hippocampus instead.
Keep Your Brain Strong
If you genuinely don’t know where you’re going, you don’t have to cut out GPS in its entirety.
You can restrict the usage of your GPS, using it to find a new destination, but turning it off when you’re returning or when you’re going somewhere that isn’t new to you.
By doing this, you can still train your brain without worrying about getting lost all the time.
With the advent of GPS, many people have come to rely on their phones to tell them where to go.
You may not think this is a problem, but with our phones giving us directions, the hippocampus in our brain doesn’t get much of a workout.
This part of our brain that helps us with navigation has been shown to suffer due to the excessive usage of GPS, growing only when we give it a challenge.
To improve your spatial skills and brain function overall, you may want to think about going on your next trip without your GPS in your hand.