Of maps and minds

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Image via Marcin Wichary

Last week, Art Decker presented some excellent research into the neurological benefits of writing. It made me wonder if there’s not something similar going on with maps and GPS devices. My parents visited earlier this summer, and they stayed in a hotel that’s about a 10-minute drive from where I live. I offered to give them directions, but my dad, ever the gadget geek, told me he would just use his new GPS.

To get here, you have to follow 9th Street under the BQE, where it makes a little jog to the right and then the left. It sounds simple, but there’s a lot going on at that intersection: the entrance to the Battery Tunnel, the ramp to the Eastbound BQE, truck traffic, other roads joining up and veering off at awkward angles… If you haven’t looked at a map and/or been prepped for the madness, it doesn’t do much good to hear your GPS tell you to take a slight left in 30 feet. My dad ended up on the on-ramp to the tunnel, and had to stop and ask a cop how to proceed from there, because of course his GPS was already calculating the route he would need to take if he continued through it. I’m not saying my directions would have eliminated the possibility for error, but I definitely think they would have been easier to follow!

There doesn’t seem to be much scientific data on the topic, though a Canadian researcher has suggested that “overreliance on gps… will result in our using the spatial capabilities of the hippocampus less, and that it will in turn get smaller.” She’s not the only one who’s worried — anecdotal evidence suggests that plenty of people are afraid of losing their navigational abilities.

No issue like this has to be either/or, but I’m curious: what do you think? Is GPS making us stupid?

4 thoughts on “Of maps and minds

  1. That’s funny, Millie. When we bought our first car and started going hiking more frequently, we also bought a handheld GPS to use on the trails. But we could never get it to work properly, and trail maps are so much simpler anyway — add a compass and it’s hard to get lost. (Plus, the maps make dandy fans on hot days.)

    Now the GPS sits in a drawer and I look at it every once in a while and think, what a waste of money!

  2. I’m a bit delayed responding to this, but I wanted to add my thoughts because it’s something we discuss a lot at work.

    I work for a UK conservation charity, and we manage over 1000 sites across the UK. On our website, we list the OS grid reference for each site (I assume you have a similar grid system in the U.S for map reading?), what town/village it is near and we even provide maps that people can download themselves. And yet, despite all of this we still get several calls/emails every week asking us for a post code to a site, or telling us that in this day and age they shouldn’t have to ask – it should be provided as standard. When it’s explained that our sites are simply nature reserves, so they don’t have letter boxes or post codes, mild panic usually ensues. “How will I find it?” “My sat nav needs the postcode to work!”, etc. I learnt to map read at school (not that long ago!) and my concern is that most these people don’t seem to know what to do with a map. I guess it’s like kids learning to type instead of write properly. I feel both should continue to be taught!

  3. When it comes to spatial reasoning (i.e., not getting lost), I was a lost cause before the GPS. Now at least I have an inanimate object to yell at and it even “yells” back!

  4. It depends on how one use it. I always look the map first – I like to get an overview and learn the road. I use the GPS if I am lost. I never use voice aid GPS – that is both distracting and prevents from learning. I think.

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