Evidence that GPS navigation reduces brain activity

New research reveals that relying on Global Positioning System (GPS) when navigating our way around town switches off parts of the brain that would otherwise be highly active. While not unexpected, the study brings concrete evidence in support of the idea that technological aids might hinder our brain elasticity.

Map of Soho (London). Experiments showed reduced brain activity when people used GPS navigation (credit: Nature Comm.)

Map of Soho (London). Experiments showed reduced brain activity when people used GPS navigation (credit: Nature Comm.)

The study published yesterday in Nature Communications, was conducted by a team of researchers at the University College London (UK). It involved 24 volunteers whose brain activity was recorded as they were asked to navigate a simulation of Soho in central London. Specifically, the researchers monitored the activity of the hippocampus – which is a region of the brain involved in memory and navigation – and the prefrontal cortex – which is relevant for planning and decision-making.

When the volunteers navigated unassisted, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex fired up with surges of activity every time the subject entered a new street, with the intensity increasing as the number of possible streets to choose from became greater and greater. Conversely, no additional activity of the same brain regions was detected when the candidates were following the instruction of a GPS system, irrespective of the number of options available.

“Entering a junction such as Seven Dials in London, where seven streets meet, would enhance activity in the hippocampus, whereas a dead-end would drive down its activity. If you are having a hard time navigating the mass of streets in a city, you are likely putting high demands on your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex,” says senior author Dr Hugo Spiers. Interestingly, the study also confirmed the role of different parts of the brain in the process of navigating through space. “Our results fit with models in which the hippocampus simulates journeys on future possible paths while the prefrontal cortex helps us to plan which ones will get us to our destination. When we have technology telling us which way to go, however, these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network. In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”

Previous research at the same institute had revealed that the hippocampus of taxi drivers in London expands as they memorize more streets and landmarks. The more complex the system of streets is in a city, the higher is the stress on the hippocampus – which means that tech companies and city planners, as well as architects, could use this knowledge to design better and more livable spaces. “Our new findings allow us to look at the layout of a city or building and consider how the memory systems of the brain may likely react. For example, we could look at the layouts of care homes and hospitals to identify areas that might be particularly challenging for people with dementia and help to make them easier to navigate. Similarly, we could design new buildings that are dementia-friendly from the outset,” conclude Spiers.

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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