Are GPS devices affecting cognitive functioning?

This might interest people:

“Ditch the GPS. It’s ruining your brain.”

It has become the most natural thing to do: get in the car, type a destination into a smartphone, and let an algorithm using GPS data show the way. Personal GPS-equipped devices entered the mass market in only the past 15 or so years, but hundreds of millions of people now rarely travel without them. These gadgets are extremely powerful, allowing people to know their location at all times, to explore unknown places and to avoid getting lost.

But they also affect perception and judgment. When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them. They pay less attention to their surroundings. And neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions.

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I only once tried using a GPS in my car. It was more a distraction than a help, haven’t used it ever since.
When I have to drive somewhere where I’ve never been before, I just look up my route on Google Maps and quickly memorize where I have to turn left/right etc. in order to reach my destination.

Some people I know who always rely on their GPS seem to be the ones who are generally bad at navigating, even while on foot. But is the excessive use of GPS the reason that they are bad at navigating or is it just that they tend to use GPS more because they are bad at navigating in the first place? I don’t know :thinking:

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I use it because of the bad traffic here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It lets me know if there is an accident, which lets me take an alternate route. (The alternate routes are slower, except when there is traffic.)

I will try to stop leaving it on, and just use it to check the routes/traffic in advance.

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Recently I made my first road trip with mnemonics instead of GPS (well mostly). Unfortunately I missed an exit because it was night time and then after getting some GPS help I relied on mnemonics again only to arrive right AT my destination without knowing it because a tree branch was completely blocking the road sign.

It was still a net positive experience though, as I knew exactly where I was and didn’t have that feeling like I teleported to my destination.


I use a GPS all the time…fantastic invention.
“When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them.” Well, duh, of course, that’s the point.

“They pay less attention to their surroundings” Not true for me.
Indeed I can pay more attention to my surroundings, since I don’t have to worry about an upcoming turn or exit from the highway. I also don’t have to worry about construction and “detour” signs, since I can just follow the detour and if some signs are missing, I know I will find my way back to the proper route.I also get ETA etc.

I will definitely continue using mine as much as I can, anytime I have to drive anywhere but the corner store!

As they would say in ancient times: this thing of written language is affecting our cognitive functions, we should ban writing!!!

Indeed. The same argument was made against making books readily available.

I think there is a difference between the arguments though. :slight_smile:

Reading and writing have cognitive benefit, because they actively use the brain. GPS tends to completely offload the cognitive task to a device.

See also London Taxi Drivers: Memorizing "The Knowledge"


#Josh Cohen. Thanks for the reply.

I would hesitate to use the word “completely” (as in your comment). The navigating system (the GPS is just part of it) guides us step by step, but we still have to follow instructions and act accordingly.
Nevertheless I agree that it is very useful, for the sake of using the brain, to use a map (physical or digital) and try to find directions without following instructions (as you mention).
The same can be said of every technology. If I am alone in the jungle I would die within 48 hours because I do not know how to hunt, gather water, recognize plants that are edible, etc. And that is not bad, because we are committed to other tasks. But I would not say that “supermarkets” are ruining our vital functions.

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I any case, I prefer to plan a route in advance, and then follow it, than follow the system step by step, I found it annoying.

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About 7 months ago I switched to a basic phone and forfeited my turn by turn abilities. A simple system I developed for memorizing routes was to assign memory tags to left and right.
In my system:

  • Left turns tagged with sunny
  • Right turns tagged with rainy
  • I assume if it is not a left or a right turn to continue on the current road I am on (eliminating need for directions like “continue straight on I-405s for 10 miles”
  • Special cases such as round abouts and slight right left I brute force memorize
  • I have a dedicated path for directions that has 50 loci which is sufficient for my day to day uses.
  • I memorize the route by making images for street names (making sure to tag those images with a sunny or rainy setting depending on the turn) and place them along my path

It has worked prettty well for me I can honestly say I have a better sense of direction. The one thing I will note is that there may be an occasional sense of wory if I am driving on a road for a long time without seeing my next street to turn on. Without any “.2 miles away from term” it can be a little anxiety provking to wonder if “o shit is this just a long road or should i just chill and trust that my turn is coming up”. I guess this makes a case for adding some mneumonic for the case of “continue straight on I-405s for 10 miles” but so far I am willing to put up with the occasional anxiety.


If you haven’t seen it, you might be interested in this discussion: Digital Minimalism: "Why We'll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes" – I’m looking for a non-smartphone at the moment, but haven’t found the ideal one yet.

Part of my reply was, I hope obviously, tounge & cheek. I suppose in part, I don’t care (anymore) about my direction finding capabilities. When younger I did a lot of search & rescue work and used natural direction finding signs, and compass and map work (before GPS). I had a great sense of direction then, partly because I needed it. Nowadays I don’t need that ability. (Although I still like maps :slight_smile:

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Here are some of the scariest quotes from the Washington Post page. AFAIK, each quote is substantiated in the links in the WP parent page.

But [GPS] also affect perception and judgment.

neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions.

Those who were guided by directions showed less activity in [the hippocampus] than participants who navigated without the device.

The hippocampus … becomes active only when you are engaged in navigating and not using GPS

The hippocampus is crucial to many aspects of daily life. It allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It also allows us to recall events from the past, what is known as EPISODIC MEMORY. And … it is the part of … the brain that … gives us the ability to imagine ourselves in the future.

Studies have long shown [that] the hippocampus is highly susceptible to experience.

atrophy in [the hippocampus] is linked to devastating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

when people use tools such as GPS, … their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.

using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus

improving spatial memory by exercising the hippocampus - paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment - might help offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.

If we are paying attention to our environment, we are stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease

When we get lost, it activates the hippocampus…Done safely, getting lost could be a good thing.


Interesting excerpt. Always good to reminded that even things that are ‘free’ have a cost.

For me, I switched to a carrier called U.S mobile. They have sims compatible with basically every phone. I like them because they have customizable plans. For me, I pay $15 a month for unlimited text and talk but 0 data. I’m on a nokkia 3310. For the most part I love it. Great battery life, the thing is a tank (dropped it numerous times and its still going strong no cracks), cute ring tone.

downsides are that every time you want to go into the home screen you need to press *. this really annoyed me in the begging. as far as i can tell you cant change this setting. Updates are not going to happen either. Suprisingly the phone has blue tooth capability and a flash light. most importantly, it has an updated version of snake.

Not a bad buy but think i might go with another phone if i was to do it over again. think it depends on your needs. for me the most important thing was just to have someting that was small and could fit in my pocket with a long battery life.

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Anything that machines do that replace a possible human challenge is, I suspect, an attack on human beings in general.

By having all the replies and coming up with all answers faster, they make our thinking this less important and our self esteem goes down as a result and our value as individuals gets to be reduced.

We get more money in our pockets when we facilitate the coming of machines. This way, we think we are doing better but we just get to be more helpless and enslaved with each passing day.

The beauty of it all is that the victims here do not even realize he or she is under attack. He or she sees the technology as a friend. Technology is good for profits, it is good for capitalism…

Yea, we have got problems but let’s not think about it too much cause a machine will surely come up with the right solution very soon and we will go with that.:slight_smile:



Have you seen the new eink phones?

It seems like a good mix to me.
I use my phone primarily to text (whatsapp), listen to podcasts/audiobooks, and GPS (ahem).

A dumb phone wouldn’t meet my use cases, so I think this would be a good compromise.


Machines were invented to escape the drudgery of boring repetitive tasks, so we can can focus on more interesting work, such as planning.

Now the trip planning is being done by machines and all we do is turn left or right or go straight according to the machine, which does sound simple and boring and repetitive . And now scientists say it may not be good for us? What a surprise!

This may end up being a worse problem than global warming in my opinion and it is linked to it too as the energy needs of machines bring on the greenhouse gases…

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I’ll check it out. There are a few interesting phones in development at the moment, including this:

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