GPS Negatively Impacts Spatial Memory

Rebecca Solnit points to a 2020 study that attempts to measure the impact of using GPS navigation devices on our spatial memory. After assessing 50 drivers, researchers found that drivers with more GPS experience had worse spatial memory when navigating without GPS. But more significantly, it’s a longitudinal study: 13 of the participants (admittedly a small sample) were retested three years later, and greater GPS use correlated with a steeper decline in spatial memory.

This is a single study, and a small sample, so I’m hesitant to draw firm conclusions. And in any case it’s not necessarily a surprising conclusion: the more you rely on a tool, the less able you are to do without it. Well, yes. When we talk about how GPS is destroying our ability to navigate or read a map, there is a presumption that this is an objectively bad thing. Except that I’ve encountered too many people who couldn’t navigate their way out of a bag before GPS. A lot of people who let their GPS receivers get them lost were, I think, pretty good at getting themselves lost without it.

The question isn’t whether GPS use atrophies an individual’s ability to navigate: that’s like worrying that a calculator reduces your ability to do sums in your head, or that a word processor excuses you from knowing how to spell. Of course it does. Those of us who are good at navigation (or sums, or spelling) and think an important skill is being lost will clutch our pearls, but making something easier also makes it more accessible. The question is whether people are, on balance, at a societal level, getting lost less often. That’s not a question neuroscience can solve, nor something you can test with an fMRI. I’m not sure how to measure it, or even if it can be measured. But I’d love to find out.

Previously: Wayfinding: A New Book about the Neuroscience of Navigation; Satnavs and ‘Switching Off’ the Brain; McKinlay: ‘Use or Lose Our Navigation Skills’; ‘Could Society’s Embrace of GPS Be Eroding Our Cognitive Maps?’; How GPS Eats Our Brains.