Backroad Ramblings: Get Lost

December 28, 2010
Jason Giacchino
Jason Giacchino
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

A freelancer and published novelist Jason is currently the editor in chief of Mountain Bike Tales digital magazine and holds a State University of New York degree in applied science with a minor in journalism. When not hunched over a computer monitor, he can be found playing outside in the suburbs of Buffalo, New York.

Get Lost, No Really

Does reliance on a GPS device decrease our natural ability to navigate  Recent studies point to some alarming results  including a higher risk for Alzheimers disease later in life.
Does reliance on a GPS device decrease our natural ability to navigate? Recent studies point to some alarming results, including possible risk for Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Well just when we, as society, were finally coming to terms with our collective dependence upon electronics in our daily lives, the scientific community has to go and ruin it by making us feel guilty. The latest word coming out of laboratories the world over is that human beings are becoming GPS-dependent, a condition with consequences far more severe than simply looking like an idiot by talking to oneself while punching in destinations.

McGill University researchers conducted a series of studies with the goal of observing effects GPS systems have on the human brain. It’s a fair enough idea for a project since cloning dinosaurs fell out of style with the decline of the Jurassic Park movie franchise, but the trouble is that they found avid GPS users are at a higher risk of suffering from problems with memory and spatial orientation.

It turns out we humans, advanced primates that we are, generally navigate using one of only two natural methods. The first is a spatial navigation whereby landmarks are used to build cognitive maps in our gray matter which help us establish where we are. As motorcyclists we are especially fond of this method and quotes like, “oh there’s the hardware store so the turn is coming up on our left,” verify this fact.

The second method is a stimulus-response strategy where we travel in “auto pilot” mode, where literally repetition tells us that we’re taking the best route to reach a specific destination. Members of our species, especially males, seem quite fond of this approach and have been observed becoming grumpy, aggressive and in some cases violent when fellow members of the populous (especially females) verbally question this natural ability of ours.

Interestingly, there is actually a section of the brain devoted to the specific task of helping human beings navigate their surroundings. This area is called the hippocampus (which is odd considering it could have just as easily been named the much cooler-sounding rhinocampus) and it’s a little memory bank that basically tells us where we are, how we got there and which path is best to get us back.

Perhaps motorcyclists should revert back to the old fashion method of using maps and getting lost in the countless stretches of road - isnt that what motorcycling is all about
Perhaps motorcyclists should revert back to the old fashion method of using maps and getting lost on countless stretches of road. Isn’t that what motorcycling is all about?

Through use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) researchers found that excessive reliance upon a GPS unit rather than the natural navigation methods discussed above seemed to lead to atrophy of the hippocampus over time, actually putting the individual at risk for cognitive problems such as Alzheimer’s disease later in life. Yikes!

Just as I was about to detach the ol’ Garmin to put it up on eBay in favor of a much more affordable compass and pocket U.S. street atlas, the article went on to say that while researchers agree evidence relating hippocampus activity to memory in general is valid, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the findings of this study. For instance, researchers are unsure as to whether using natural spatial strategies actually causes the hippocampus to grow, or if having a big hippocampus from the get-go causes an individual to favor natural spatial strategies. Think of it as the modern version of the old, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” conundrum.

There are some additional points to consider that don’t seem quite right here: Has GPS really been around long enough to track true long-term effects on users? And just how dependent upon the device are the people being studied here? Are they glancing at it on the handlebars of their Goldwing when trying to find the closest freeway on-ramp in Detroit at 3 a.m. or are they punching in coordinates to get from the living room to the bathroom?

I suppose the whole point is null and void to those of us who use our motorcycles as an excuse to avoid destinations and most-efficient routes in general, instead savoring the experience as an opportunity to laze upon secondary roads and “the long ways around.” I’m sure in time a study will be released that concludes too much scenery intake can be harmful to one’s health. But hopefully by then people will be using teleportation to get from point A to point B, and those of us opting to stick with transportation on two wheels will gladly take such risks.