Are GPS Apps Messing With Our Brains?

Excerpt from this article:

We’re becoming navigational idiots. The problem isn’t GPS itself. The Global Positioning System, which uses a constellation of satellites to determine one’s location on the globe, is just a way of fixing points on a map. Rather, the problem is how smartphone apps such as Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze display our routes. Because these apps seek primarily to direct us efficiently from A to B, their default presentation is a landscape somewhere between minimalist and impoverished—typically a fat colored line (your route) running through a largely featureless void. Mappers call this goal-oriented perspective” egocentric.” It’s all about you.

Paper maps, by contrast, use an “allocentric” presentation—one that forces you to plan and frame your route within a meaningful context: towns, forts, universities, parks, and natural features named for local heroes and history (such as Lake Champlain and Smugglers’ Notch in my home state of Vermont), distinctive shapes (Camel’s Hump), or local flora and fauna. (The Winooski River, which flows through my town, gets its name from the Abenaki word for the wild onion that grows on its banks.) Such maps bear a rough but essential resemblance to the mental map locals carry in their heads.

…The distinction between these two wayfinding modes interests not just mapmakers, but neuroscientists, for each draws upon a distinctive neural network to understand space and move us through it. Your phone’s default egocentric (or “cue-based”) mode is the domain of the caudate nucleus, a looping, snake-shaped structure that is heavily involved in movement and closely tied to areas of the brain that respond to simple rewards.

Navigating by map—often called a cognitive mapping strategy because it builds and draws on the map in your head—primarily uses the hippocampus, an area in the center of the brain crucial to spatial memory, autobiographical memory, and our ability to ponder the future.

While most of us favor one or the other of these navigational strategies, both are required; lose either and you’ll soon lose your way.