Wednesday, 4 September 2013

GPS, Navigation and our Brains

This sounds true to me:
How GPS affects our natural ability to navigate is a question that has, in recent years, begun to attract the attention of researchers around the world. What they are finding suggests that (...) I was one of millions of people for whom technology is disrupting something the human brain is supposed to do well. When we use GPS, the research indicates, we remember less about the places we go, and put less work into generating our own internal picture of the world.

Often referred to as mental maps, these schematics tell us where things are in relation to each other and allow us to navigate among them. They are as powerful as they are mysterious, even to specialists who have devoted their careers to studying how they work. “They are very individual,” said Julia Frankenstein, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg in Germany. “The things which matter to you might be completely different to those that matter to your wife or your children.”

With the option to use GPS to do our wayfinding for us, it might seem like we don’t have much need for mental maps anymore. But according to Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist affiliated with McGill University and the Douglas Institute who studies spatial memory and navigation, the process of generating mental maps also plays a role in activities that have nothing to do with getting to work. Becoming overly reliant on GPS and letting that skill atrophy, she and others suggest, might actually be bad for us.
Later in the article it says that things maybe aren't that bad. But anyway, nobody is sure how bad things are.

Let's suppose things are bad. My experience tells me that is true not only for GPS navigation but even when people go hiking but somebody else is reading the map and telling them where to turn. I think that the quoted article is true. But if true, what to do? If every one of us becomes overly reliant to GPS navigation? What then?

I think I have a solution. Use the GPS to record the path you took but not to navigate. When outside do experiment, try alternative paths, study paper maps, ... Only when everything else fails -- look at the GPS map. I may be a little extreme but I still have my 8-years-old Garmin GPS60 without maps.

Because the quoted research says nothing about GPS. It says that the navigation without thinking about the surroundings is something that might atrophy our skills. But we can use GPS outside and still think about our surroundings.

PS. I think that Trackprofiler users are typically the kind of people (mountainbikers, hikers, paragliders, ...) who do think about surroundings and don't rely too much on car navigation.