Not always a good thing. But who has time to read a map? From Time.
How GPS Is Messing With Our Minds
There is mounting evidence that GPS is doing something to our minds—and maybe even our brains. Several academic studies have proven what any of us who have driven with GPS assistance already know intuitively, that GPS allows a driver to “disengage” from the environment. A useful model is the “cognitive map,” a term first used in 1948 by Edward Tolman, a UC Berkeley psychologist. He argued that experiments with rats in mazes demonstrated their ability to envision the totality of the maze, how the various parts fit together to create a whole. A growing number of researchers now agree that overreliance on GPS essentially erodes our ability to build our own cognitive maps.
It may even turn out that our GPS addiction can have actual physiological consequences. In 2006, a British study made headlines by announcing that London taxi drivers, whose jobs require them to integrate a vast body of knowledge, have above-average amounts of grey matter in the region of the brain responsible for complex spatial representation. Preliminary research also suggested that the volume of grey matter decreases when these drivers retire. At least one of the neuroscientists involved in the study has speculated that prolonged GPS use could have a similar effect.
It will be a long time—if ever—before scientists are able to reach this conclusion. But a clue to this process may be sitting in your glove compartment, gathering dust. It’s probably been a long time since you unfolded that paper map. Again, we have anecdotal evidence—ask a Baby Boomer or Gen-X-er about millennials’ lack of map-reading skills, and you’ll get an earful—along with empirical data. A Japanese project in 2008 that compared three navigational methods—GPS, paper maps, and direct experience (a guide led subjects through a route and then asked them to repeat it)—found that the GPS group lagged behind the others.