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We Have the Whole World in our Hands

When we memorize, organize, or otherwise process mental material, we often create cognitive maps. Usually simple, but sometimes imaginative and ornate, these conceptual structures allow us to to place our thoughts in convenient spatial arrangement for easy recall and analysis.

This mental maneuver has ancient roots. In De Oratore, Cicero tells the legend of Simonides, the Greek poet, who briefly stepped out of a banquet only to watch the hall collapse, killing its occupants. Simonides discovered that, though many of the dead bodies were horribly disfigured, he could identify them using his mental image of where each person was sitting around the dinner table. Roman orators called this technique the method of loci, and it is now commonly known as the memory palace. Though cognitive mapping is centuries old, psychologist Edward Tolman demonstrated and formulated the concept in 1948, based on an experiment involving food at the end of a maze and an unfortunate rat.

But recent advances in technology are threatening this ancient technique. In 2005, Gary Burnett and Kate Lee of the University of Nottingham published a study entitled “The Effect of Vehicle Navigation Systems on the Formation of Cognitive Maps.” The study had drivers navigate various routes on a driving simulator, with some of the drivers using a Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation and others using maps. The study found that drivers using GPS navigation were less capable of creating a cognitive map of their route. More specifically, drivers who used the GPS system “remembered fewer scenes, were less accurate in their ordering of images seen along routes, and drew simpler maps…compared to those using traditional methods.” Later studies corroborated these findings. In 2008, Toru Ishikawa of the University of Tokyo found that after a person travels on foot using a GPS, he is less able to mentally reconstruct his route than if he had used a map.

These studies only formally confirm our common-sense intuitions. Anyone who has used a GPS knows the feeling of arriving at a destination without the faintest idea of how he got there. A GPS throws specific, localized instructions at the driver: in five-hundred feet, turn right; drive two miles then keep left; in a quarter of a mile, arrive at destination on left. These commands, delivered predictably at each step of the journey with soothing authority, allow the driver to ignore his surroundings and his overall trajectory, and instead focus on performing a sequence of driving maneuvers. The trip becomes a series of turns and merges instead of an integrated journey. With the proliferation of navigation apps such as Google Maps and Waze, GPS technology is more accessible now than ever before. Instead of creating a cognitive map, a smartphone owner can have a GPS app create the map for him.

But why should we care? Now that we can outsource navigation to satellites, maybe map skills are simply obsolete. Perhaps we should relegate maps to the dustbin of navigational history where they will join other outdated instruments such as the cross-staff and the astrolabe. Why should we cling to antiquated behaviors?

Well, this particular advance in technology may come with neurological drawbacks. The loss of cognitive mapping skills has ramifications far beyond navigation. Cognitive mapping shapes all areas of mental activity, claimed Edward Tolman, who wrote that the brain’s control center, “the central office itself,” is “far more like a map control room than it is like an old-fashioned telephone exchange.” Mental mapping is a central component of our cognition. According to Veronique Bohbot, associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University, we use mental maps for many practical activities. Waiters build cognitive maps to remember the order of people sitting around a restaurant table and students use them to memorize information for exams.

As people stop building mental maps for navigation, their ability to create these maps begins to deteriorate. Cognitive mapping is primarily a function of the section of the brain called the hippocampus. Beginning in 2000, a famous series of studies conducted by Eleanor Maguire found that London taxi drivers who navigate without a GPS tend to have larger-than-average hippocampi. The studies demonstrate that the brain’s capacity for spatial memory is somewhat plastic and can be improved with practice. But the reverse is also true. If a person regularly uses a GPS instead of traditional navigation techniques, his cognitive mapping skills may begin to atrophy. Thus using a GPS may damage a person’s ability to memorize and recall information.

But the dangers of GPS navigation extend beyond neurology. On a warm summer Sunday a few years ago, my friend and I visited an art museum in Manhattan. When we reached the George Washington Bridge bus terminal on our way back to Teaneck, we decided on a whim to turn down the tempting prospect of a quick bus ride and to instead walk home. We soon lost our way, and a pleasant walk over the bridge turned into a grueling expedition through forests, swamps, and the backwaters of Fort Lee until we finally reached my home five hours later. A brief stroll turned into a treacherous trek, a typical Sunday was transformed into a wild adventure, and it would have been ruined had either of us owned a smartphone (as I now do). With access to Google Maps or Waze, we could have easily asked the satellites to triangulate our location. We would have paused for a moment to punch in my home address, and soon found our way back. The twenty-first century’s greatest invention would have robbed me of a great day.

Had I been carrying a smartphone during this journey, even if I had elected not to use the GPS app, the very possibility of whipping out my phone and easily navigating home would have destroyed the adventure. There’s a certain perilous romance to getting lost. Granted it comes with attendant risks, but so do all adventures. What makes an adventure truly adventurous is the possibility of failure. While a GPS affords the obvious advantage of (almost) guaranteeing timely arrival, it destroys the sense of quest when we travel, the sense that we’re leaving the comfort of our homes and venturing into the unknown. With the widespread availability of GPS technology, we can no longer recklessly explore the world – it has already been explored for us. When Wordsworth said, “The world is too much with us”, he little envisioned my right pants pocket where the world sits snugly, catalogued, organized, and formatted for user-friendliness. Each of us, in a quite literal sense, has the whole world in his hands.

Not only does the GPS take the romance out of the journey, but it also somewhat trivializes the destination. The capability to casually travel anywhere diminishes our feeling of rootedness. The GPS is the newest stage of a process that makes travel a facile and effortless exercise. Nowadays, if a person is unsatisfied with his surroundings, all he needs to do is poke an address into his phone, and within moments he can set off for a new destination. With the ability to spontaneously decide to go anywhere, little connects us to a particular place. We need not commit, we need not tie ourselves down to geography. Our newfound cosmopolitanism comes at the expense of the local. Because we can go everywhere, we can’t really be anywhere.

This may smack of cranky Luddism, but criticism of new gadgets should not be an exclusive privilege of curmudgeons. Because consumer technologies are usually created to fulfill an immediate need, developers rarely consider subtle long-terms effects. The process is driven by instant gratification rather than careful reflection. So while psychological studies and the inviting prospect of getting lost are unlikely to inspire a worldwide eradication of GPS’s, it is still critical to understand the pitfalls of new technologies, even if only to recognize an inevitable tradeoff. If we are losing mental capacities and losing the very ability to get lost, let’s at least not lose track of what we’re losing.