Science

How GPS Weakens Memory—and What We Can Do about It

Using mobile phones to navigate has become second nature. Whether you’re heading to a new park, meeting friends at a restaurant, or going to run errands, you just tap the location on your phone and go. Prior to GPS, exploring and wayfinding in new places required preparation. We had to think, consult paper maps, and plan and memorize parts of our route. But in today’s technological world, there is no need to think. Simply follow the turn-by-turn directions on your phone, and you’ll end up where you need to be. But your overall sense of the place suffers. Spatial navigation, which had been a process performed exclusively by the human brain and perceptual system, has now been surrendered to technology.

However, in doing so, we also surrendered our agency. Does it matter?

There are structures in the brain dedicated to these complex pathfinding tasks. In particular, the hippocampus is deeply associated with supporting spatial memory, spatial navigation and mental mapping.

Anthropologists have gone so far as to suggest that navigation needs might have been the starting point for all memories (as discussed in Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage). For example, mnemonic techniques for remembering large numbers such as the digits of pi often rely on the “memory palace” (or “method of loci”) made famous by Cicero, with multiple floors and connected chambers in which one mentally stores the digits. One can then recall a long sequence of digits through an imaginary navigation, revisiting the chambers of this memory palace. 

IF WE DON’T USE IT, WE LOSE IT

As we age, our memory declines. And while there is no silver bullet for healthy aging, neuroscientists agree that one of the key ingredients of successful aging is staying mentally active. Studies show that we can actually exercise the hippocampus memory through exploration and spatial navigation. Expert navigators such as London cab drivers have larger hippocampi compared to regular populations in consequence of their intensive spatial mapping and multisensory experience of the city.

If spatial navigation is such an essential element to healthy aging and mental activity, why surrender this critical skill to our phones? By following a set of digital turn-by-turn directions, GPS navigation apps treat us as passive passengers rather than active explorers, removing our agency to make decisions. In turn this inhibits our ability to create proper mental maps of the surrounding environment, and negatively impacts the hippocampus, which is critical for brain health.

While advances in technology clearly have many benefits, we must remain mindful that technology can influence the brain. Ultimately our goal should be to create and design technology in ways that complement our brain and enhance our opportunities to interact and engage with the real world around us.

PHYSICAL MAPS, THE FIRST REVOLUTION

Mental maps arise from direct experience. As we explore new environments, the brain constantly maps out our surroundings. And we use all of our senses to learn about and remember our surroundings, not just vision. In particular, evolution rewarded auditory navigation: as hunter-gatherers we listened to the environment and moved towards sounds, allowing us to avoid predators, track prey and locate water sources. Our brains ultimately could generate detailed maps of our environment through active exploration, a hard-won evolutionary skill that never went away.

So even today, strolling along a modern city waterfront, we might hear the petulant squawks of seagulls fighting over a bread crust, or the low throaty notes of approaching ships in the fog. We refer to such distinctive, spatially situated sounds as auditory beacons.

However, as civilizations expanded and grew, it became more difficult to navigate over long distances only through sensory experiences and memory. One cannot sail to another continent on senses alone. So, maps were a revolution for humanity. Rudimentary maps were created as early as 16,500 B.C. when people drew paintings on the walls of caves showing stars or landscape features. Later, these were carved into wood or rocks so they could be carried while traveling. But it wasn’t until the ancient Greeks and early Chinese dynasties that the first paper maps appeared.

Physical maps were a revolution. They can contain enormous amounts of information about the surrounding environment on a simple piece of paper, but using them successfully requires both the correct placement of oneself within the map and the correct heading. Maps are an example of allocentric navigation, with allo- meaning “other”: all the information on the map is displayed as it relates to other features and landmarks within the environment.

In contrast, a set of directions is direct and easy to follow. Directions are an example of egocentric navigation, with ego- meaning “self”: all information is relative to the person’s current position and orientation. However, egocentric navigation and directions are considerably less flexible as they only work from a single location and contain significantly less information about the broader environment.

The challenge is that physical maps can be very abstract and require many other techniques to operate, such as the ability to determine where in the map one is located. Indeed, maps evolved in parallel with wayfinding techniques. Wayfinding tools empower self-location, from compass to stars, latitude, longitude and realigning landmarks. Such tools allow us to achieve the self-location and heading necessary for allocentric navigation. But the expertise needed to be a successful navigator is not within everyone’s grasp. Even commercial airplanes used to have an expert navigator on board: a person dedicated to determining the aircraft’s current position—and next changes to heading—on top of a map. At the individual level most of us didn’t have the luxury to afford a navigator, and families would have table discussions preparing routes for their trips. And then assign their own familial navigators.

GPS NAVIGATION

The rise of satellite-enabled GPS was revolutionary for navigation, and with the rise of mobile phones, anyone can have their personal navigator. We can go places spontaneously, with little need for planning or additional people to navigate. GPS navigation apps enable egocentric navigation with easy-to-follow turn-by-turn directions: “Turn right in 100 meters, then turn left,” all the way to the destination. With these conveniences at our fingertips, we are no longer active navigators; we are passive passengers aboard the GPS.

However, multiple experiments have shown that this easy egocentric navigation also reduces spatial awareness and mental mapping when compared to more traditional forms of allocentric navigation like paper maps. See for example recent work by Eran Ben-Elia comparing paper maps to Google Maps, in which app users significantly underperformed on traditional memory map tasks such as pointing or landmark recognition. 

Our question is: Can we find a way to still use GPS but reduce the harmful effects of current GPS navigation on memory?

The challenge is to create alternative forms of GPS navigation that will remain easy enough for the general public, but also enable allocentric navigation and thus be more likely to improve spatial awareness.

Our research finds that appropriately designed audio beacons offer an alternative that fosters a much more active form of egocentric navigation. Instead of guiding users to turn right and turn left on the way to their desired destination, we can convert a location of interest to a distinctive auditory beacon (digital versions of the aforementioned petulant squawks and low throaty notes) via earbuds or headphones. Our auditory navigation application, known as Soundscape, has an effect that resembles a church bell or minaret, where peals or calls to prayer can be heard at great distance; our would-be navigator can make way by heading toward the sound.

But audio beacons can be created for any chosen destination, and without sound decay, so they can be heard from as far away as needed. With an audio beacon at the destination, a pharmacy two miles away can produce a sound that we can hear through our phone. Then one simply moves towards it, but unlike with turn-by-turn directions, you can build spatial awareness through active and direct exploration of the environment along the way.

In recent experiments, available in our publication in Scientific Reports (an open-access journal by the publisher of Nature), we show that this type of sensory navigation through audio beacons outperforms turn-by-turn navigation in the creation of mental maps. 

We believe these results, at least in part, derive from people taking a more active role in their navigation. They explore more while using auditory beacons, and can engage with the environment, both of which support allocentric navigation and the construction of mental maps.

We invite the reader to try such auditory beacon experience by trying the Soundscape app on their mobile phone. The Soundscape team originally designed the app as an experimental tool to enable blind and low vision populations with a potentially safer, more robust and accessible navigation than turn-by-turn options; to date, it has enabled over 500,000 walks in seven countries. 

Auditory beacon navigation is an example of how we are entering into an era where noxious effects of automation on our brain health will be at the forefront of technological development. Technology does not need to replace our evolutionary functions and distance us from our environments, but rather with appropriate design can complement the sensory inputs processed by our brain. In that regard, GPS navigation based on auditory beacons offers a compelling example of a sensory augmentation that helps humans connect more deeply with reality; perhaps instead of evolving into a new species of turn-by-turn zombies, we can thereby all engage more deeply with humanity, our local environment, and life itself.

This is an opinion and analysis article.

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