Is your GPS bad for your mental health?

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook


That GPS on the dashboard is shrinking your brain and potentially increasing your chances of Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to new research.

Is your GPS bad for your mental health?
Is the humble GPS affecting your mental health?

Research at McGill University in Montreal, Canada has tied the loss of function in the hippocampus to the onset of dementia and related diseases, and it is the hippocampus that seems to form the relational models in our brain’s directional capacity.
The hippocampus is a paired sausage-like organ in the centre of the brain that forms our spatial navigation and long term memory, amongst other things.
Like much of the brain, it appears that the hippocampus can expand in size with use. London cabbies, charged with learning ‘The Knowledge’, or the name and location of 25,000 streets in a city that has been voted the most difficult to navigate in the world, have a hippocampus that is much larger than average.
Researchers now believe that over-reliance on GPS systems will lead us to a reduction of function in our hippocampi, with consequent deleterious impacts on our mental health.
It seems anything of value has a contrary dark side.
However, we’ve all had those experiences with our GPS where it’s attempted to direct us to a completely erroneous location, well away from where we wanted to go. In the UK, recent research by the insurance industry has linked 300,000 crashes or near crashes to drivers’ literal reliance on their GPS’s instructions.
In reality, our dependence on our GPS is relatively minor, and our spatial navigational skills are used much more widely than finding our way to an obscure address in Townsville or determining the best route to tonight’s campsite.
Simply navigating from the car to that desired address’ front door or getting back from our toilet spot to the campsite tonight requires the use of those very same navigational skills, However, it’s thought that the GPS is just part of a suite of modern tools which reduce the demand on our brains, with consequent impacts on the onset of dementia.
The lesson, in theory as well as practice, is to take a paper map with you as well as your GPS on your travels.