It’s a trope one expects from finger-wagging geriatrics: “cell phones are ruining your brain!” It’s easy for septuagenarians to lament the loss of simpler times, or reminisce on the days when, for example, getting somewhere meant having to rely on complicated paper maps, directions or intuition. But new research shows there is science to back these claims: using digital maps for directions is actually negatively affecting our perception, judgment, memory and capacity for imagination.
This ought to make everyone with a smartphone think twice about relying on it for too much information.
According to a study published in Nature, participants were asked to virtually navigate the dense, winding neighborhood of Soho in London, with some given digital GPS and others left to their own devices. Their brain activity was monitored and the study revealed significant effects on the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial navigation — but also, importantly, memory and imagination. This part of the brain is acutely malleable, and the density of this part of the brain changes based on mental exercise or the presence of hormones resulting from depression and anxiety.
For example, as M.R. O’Connor points out in The Washington Post, “London’s taxi drivers famously have greater gray-matter volume in the hippocampus as a consequence of memorizing the city’s labyrinthine streets.” She also notes the devastating implications of an atrophied hippocampus: post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
Understanding these effects should incline every phone and GPS user to challenge the instinct to open Google Maps every time they get in the car. While it can be helpful for orienting to a new place, or identifying a new destination, this study shows it would be developmentally healthy for people of all ages to use Maps as a course-correcting aid, not a source of absolute reliance.
This also is helpful information for parents to know as they consider how best to introduce digital technologies to their kids. While Maps is often cited as one strictly positive externality of the digital era — a form of logistical assistance we can’t live without — its important to instead realize that every digital tool can have negative consequences and should be carefully utilized.
Challenging and rewarding kids for their ability to navigate from memory can help them stay safe when navigating their own neighborhood, but it also can make their brains healthier. In this sense, parents should expand beyond limits on social apps, photo editing software and video streaming websites to consider the potentially harmful implications of a suite of different digital resources — thinking twice before inviting Alexa, Echo or Siri into the house to replace activities that would stimulate the brain. Navigating a digital world with intention can be a strenuous, full-time job, but just as pre-Maps generations managed to do, people sure could find a way.