The directionally challenged among us can likely speak to this vicious cycle: You rely on GPS or your Google maps app to avoid getting lost, which means that you don’t expend the mental energy on your journey to commit the route to memory, which means that next time, you’ll have to rely on GPS or your Google maps app to avoid getting lost. And round and round we go — sometimes quite literally.
It’s not all in your head: Research suggests that the digital tools we use to get around really are changing our brains. One study, for example, found that hikers who used GPS had a harder time recalling their route than those who had used regular paper maps. A 2006 study on London cab drivers, meanwhile, linked the profession to a larger-than-average hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for spatial awareness; some researchers have speculated that frequent use of GPS could have the opposite effect, shrinking the hippocampus down to size. As a Nature column put it last year, mental navigation “is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ skill” – and we’ve become less and less inclined to use it.
The good news, as the New York Times noted earlier today, there is a way to strengthen your innate sense of direction, no matter how much time you’ve spent walking around with your nose nearly touching your phone. The bad news is that it looks a lot like resetting your caffeine tolerance — to get yourself back to baseline, it’s best to go cold turkey. Improving your ability to create mental maps, the Times explained, is all about observing the physical: taking in the features of the natural and built environments on your route, starting your journey by orienting yourself (are you facing north, south, east, west?), even using your finger to trace a path on a paper map before setting off.
If you need a reminder to pay attention along the way, the paper counseled, try setting a phone timer to go off at regular intervals; otherwise, no technology until you reach your destination. It may be a while till you get there — but, just as GPS has done, your brain’s sense of location will become more advanced over time.