Are we surrendering our sense of direction to GPS?

As the course unit delves into topics of trust and technology, particularly the GPS, I can’t help but wonder…what did I ever do before the GPS? I’m sure many of you would agree to have questioned yourself how you ever lived or got around without a GPS. Is the GPS slowly taking over the remainder of my “human compass” or my natural “sense of direction” so to speak? Well I’m here to investigate!


How dependent are we?

Exactly how dependent are we to that lovely monotone voice?

She, her lovely monotone voice is our lifeline, the mediator to all the car arguments we have ever encountered. You might ask – as technology is more and more integrated to support our every little need, what’s so bad about accepting help? True, I am able to admit navigational devices have saved me what could have taken hours on end of needlessly frustrating searches. However, what happens when these devices become a crutch to our lifestyle and our only reliable source. There won’t be anyone to help you other than your trusty instincts when your Iphone, android, or Tomtom dies suddenly!

Let’s take for example. Back a while ago, an US woman, Lauren Rosenberg, tried to sue Google for their Google Maps service. She claims her use of Google Maps for a 1.2km trip caused her physical, mental, and emotional pain by leading her into a sidewalk-less four-lane highway and ultimately, the harsh reality of a motor vehicle. The case was of course thrown out for unreasonable claims. Now let it simmer a bit. Exactly how dependent have we become? Maybe not to such extreme cases, but I think most of us are guilty to some sort of irreplaceable bond.

Sense of direction, do you have it?

Sense of direction, do you have it?

What is “sense of direction”? 

According to Julia Frankenstein of The New York Times Sunday Review, psychologist Dr. Edward C. Tolman conducted cognitive learning experiments in the 40s on rats in mazes. According to Dr. Tolman, “Learning consists not in stimulus-response connections but in the building up in the nervous system of sets which function like cognitive maps”. In other words, our everyday curiosity of the world, the exploration of our surroundings, all contribute to the physical maps created to anchor our cognitive mental mapping abilities.  Julia Frankenstein also noted that our heavy dependency towards GPS devices leads us to reduced cognitive abilities. A study by Dr. Eleanor A. Maguire at the University of College London found reduced brain structures for cognitive spatial abilities to forming mental maps when relying on navigational systems. Dr. Maguire found larger hippocampus (memory forming, storage area) in London taxi drivers compared to the general population. Basically, taxi drivers who relied on traditional methods of “getting to know the neighborhood” had better spatial memory compared to the average GPS junkie

In this video below by The Walrus, Giuseppe Iaria, a neuroscience post-doc. studying human navigation finds that people who think they have an inherent bad sense of direction are simply too lazy to the task of learning their surrounding environment. Both researchers Guiseppe Iaria and Veronique Bohbot have developed virtual video game platform scenarios to test human orientation skills on landmark and surrounding environments.

To sum it up nicely, practice makes perfect. Like learning an instrument and never practicing again, we lose our sense of direction when we stop using it.

So do we have hope? 

What should we do? Swear off the existence of GPS, take out a compass and start exploring the world at the eye of its beholder? No that’s crazy talk! The majority of us love technology and embrace it far too much to cut the cord from having the chance to navigate to the nearest Tims within a fraction of a minute. This does not mean we can’t give a second thought on the idea that maybe the next time your phone decides to magically die; you will not sit around hopelessly lost. Maybe you will start paying attention to your surroundings, the unusual landmarks that give the “aha I know where I am” light bulb in your head. At this day and age, we are constantly changed by the ever expanding tech world, faster than you may think. Don’t let technology take away your human abilities.

Cheers! icon_TriageDirection

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