Recent studies have suggested that GPS navigation is a natural extension of natural human processes. People originally navigated using natural cues – wind and wave patterns, shadows, star coordinates – which in turn built neural pathways in the brain. Neuroscientists have now determined there are two strategies the human brain uses to navigate. The first is called spatial navigation. Spatial navigation helps the brain build maps based on landmarks. The second is stimulus-response, which is our brain’s version of auto-pilot. In stimulus-response, our brain learns directions by repetition, telling us that we need to turn left or right because we’ve done it before. Over time, these routes become routine and we can follow them without thinking. Voice-guided GPS directions can be thought of as stimulus-response. Over time, our brains can follow these routes without thinking.
The brain performs all this navigation work in the hippocampus, the region responsible for spatial orientation and memory formation. A study completed at McGill University has indicated that using spatial memory to navigate can help reduce the chances of mental impairment. Modern transportation businesses rely on GPS devices – stimulus response systems – to coordinate their fleets, but there may be undiscovered mental benefits to using GPS software. Drivers who routinely travel the same route can gradually rely less on their GPS device’s voice-guided instructions, while still receiving messages from dispatch and following updated route instructions. In this way, drivers can strike a balance between spatial navigation and stimulus-response navigation.
It’s important to remember, in the face of these discoveries, that the human brain is inherently adaptable. It molds itself in response to its surroundings. A phenomenon known as transactive memory, for example, has become more pronounced since the advent of Google. Transactive memory is a form of shared thinking – humans do not rely on information from their own brains if they know this information is stored somewhere else. In this case, the human brain does not carefully store information if it knows this information can be easily retrieved from the Internet. Transactive memory is essential in workplaces – research has shown that teams are able to accomplish complex tasks because each member can rely on the group as a repository of information. Using GPS devices may have a similar and unexpected benefit on our mental processes. Technology and the brain often work together in unforeseen ways. It may be that GPS is the next step in the path that began with mankind looking to the stars for clues.