“Neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions,” says science writer M.R. O’Connor, citing a study of personal GPS devices co-authored by Kent-based cognitive neuroscience researcher Amir-Homayoun Javadi:
What isn’t known is the effect of GPS use on hippocampal function when employed daily over long periods of time. Javadi said the conclusions he draws from recent studies is that “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.”
How people navigate naturally changes with age. Navigation aptitude appears to peak around age 19, and after that, most people slowly stop using spatial memory strategies to find their way, relying on habit instead. But neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot has found that using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus at any age. She thinks that interventions focused on 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,” Bohbot told me in an email.