GPS and its Discontents

The New York Times on Sunday had an article citing the altered brain function through use of GPS devices can decrease our use of hippocampus, the area of the brain where our “mental maps” are stored.  She concludes:

Next time you’re in a new place, forget the GPS device. Study a map to get your bearings, then try to focus on your memory of it to find your way around.

Wait a second, a map?  GPS devices are to maps as maps are themselves to unaided navigation.  A study that were to compare the hippocampus of map users versus those that don’t use maps would surely show spatial abilities of the non-map users to be higher!  One could go a step further — walk around a city blindfolded and you will get to know it especially well, if not particularly efficiently.  ”Toss the GPS” is a typical response to the introduction of technology which will always introduce a cost and benefit against standard instead of optimal practice.    If technology changes how we educate ourselves it doesn’t select for us what we educate ourselves on.

The map is not the territory.  But the territory doesn’t have to be your territory either.  What you decide to focus on is what will accelerate brain function and it doesn’t need to be navigation.  There will be times GPS is optimal — how do I get from here to Walgreen’s fast — and other times I want to wonder what the building a Walgreen’s is in used to be.