Using a GPS may be deleterious for your brain (evidence not causality)

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Magellan Blazer12 GPS Receiver.
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I’ve often worried that using a calculator addles my brain.  As does relying on my GPS.  So, I rarely use a calculator (relying on mental ledgerdemain for most of my two and three numerical requirements.  And, my GPS provides me “books on tape” information far in excess of any directions to my destination.  It turns out I have had tremendous reasons to minimize their use.  It turns out the hippocampus (associated with our memory functions) is  negatively impacted by continued reliance on devices such as a GPS.

Over the years, I routinely have relied upon my recollection of visual cues such as landmarks to get me to my destination (how dare they have torn down that building- just because I haven’t been to this city in ten years.  You’d think they’d consider the fact that I needed that cue to get back to my destination J.)   Other people rely upon a set route, turning right or left at various corners.  That latter stimulus-response method is akin to what we employ when guided by GPS.

In a series of six papers presented and the Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Veronique Bohbot (with other researchers from Douglas Mental Health, McGill University Laval Hospital) described a series of experiments with 475 subjects.  It seems that as we age, we convert from spatial processing to a stimulus-response method when navigating mazes.  This change is due to atrophy within the hippocampus (which poses a risk for Alzheimer’s and cognitive problems).  However, if one does use spatial strategies, there is a greater amount of gray matter within the hippocampus; they also score higher on cognition tests.

While these series of papers do present statistical data demonstrating the effects of aging and changes in the hippocampus related to our navigational choices, there is no causality available.  These tests employed different people;  a longitudinal study was not part of the protocol.  (So we can’t conclude this proves a “use it or lose it” framework.) [Other studies provide data that taxicab drivers in London have larger hippocampi that non-taxi drivers; this does not prove that the hippocampus “grows” due to navigational capabilities or just that those with larger hippocampi are more likely to be successful taxi drivers.]

Don’t you just love “chicken or egg” research studies?  One thing is certain- I won’t risk the lack of data- I will keep using my spatial navigational methods and my mental computation of sums, products, and differences.

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