I continue to be amazed at how little we humans know ourselves: how our brains work, what motivations govern us — many of which are unconscious — and how technology alters our mental processes. Take, for example, the GPS systems in today’s cars. Not only does research show these programs, designed to make driving easier, are endangering our lives but they are also making us stupid. (“Wazed And Confused,” by David Dobbs, Mother Jones, Nov/Dec 2016, pgs. 53-56.)
For example, the Ogloolik people in northern Canada strapped GPS devices to their snowmobiles to improve their navigation. Over time, reliance on the device meant they lost their ancient wisdom for reading the landscape. To prevent further erosion, they are developing strategies to integrate the new technology without affecting their intuitive skills.
To understand why the Oglooliks lost their grove, neurologists explain the human mind uses two parts of the brain to maneuver in the real world: the caudate nucleus and the hippocampus. (Ibid pg. 55) The former focuses on observing movement. The latter is crucial to spatial memory. Lose one or the other capability and you’re likely to lose your way home.
The GPS system eliminates all details on its map, except point to point directions. People who slavishly have followed its instructions have driven into lakes and crashed into overpasses. “…the New York State Department of Transportation blamed GPS for 80 percent of map guiding accidents.”(Ibid pg. 54.)
The effect of the GPS system on the hippocampus is dramatic. Studies show it reduces grey matter in the brain. London cabbies, on the other hand, who have to rely on The Knowledge, a directional as well as dimensional understanding of London, have more grey matter than ordinary people. Scientists worry that “people with smaller hippocampi stand a greater risk of memory loss , Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression schizophrenia and post-traumatic distress disorder. (Ibid pg. 56)
Working with a paper map forces the mind to think allocentrically: to see “the world as it is and … to develop a strategy for navigating within that reality.” (Ibid pg. 55) Working with a GPS system is egocentric. Terrain and barriers get erased to provide a person with the simplest route. Allocentric navigational challenges us to “Improvise and create” (Ibid pg. 55 ) Egocentric navigation doesn’t.
In light of what we now know about ourselves, here’s simple rule to remember: when you turn on the GPS, you turn off a little of your brain. (Originally puglished 12/5/16)