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Is technology changing who we are?

Are GPS zombies eating your brain?

Navigating on "auto-pilot" may damage this important part of your brain.

GPS zombie needs brains

Thanks to BenBlogged.com for the zombie vector used in this graphic.

Everybody knows that zombies eat brains. But GPS zombies? You're eating your own brains!

We navigate through our environment using two main strategies. Spatial strategy creates mental maps by observing landmarks and other environmental cues. Stimulus-response strategy turns our brains on auto-pilot, making turns and other directional changes without paying attention to our environment. GPS zombies often navigate through their environment using the latter strategy, making directional changes only when stimulated by instructions from the GPS device.

Researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that excessive use of stimulus-response strategy can shrink your hippocampus, part of the brain that helps with spatial navigation. Veronique Bohbot, associate professor of psychiatry at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill, says "decreased volume in the hippocampus is a risk factor for conversion from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease."

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The findings were presented at the 2010 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Subjects in the study who navigated through their environment using spatial strategies (e.g. looking for landmarks and other visual cues) showed greater fMRI activity than those who navigated using the stimulus-response strategy common to GPS devices.

And it's not just driving, folks. Many smartphones are now equipped with GPS software that can guide us as we're walking or riding our bicycles.

The end result? We get where we need to go, but our brains have no idea where we are or how we got there. Sure sounds like Alzheimer's to me.

But all is not lost. Research at University College London in 2000 found that London taxi drivers, who must pass a legendarily grueling navigation skills test known as "The Knowledge," have significantly larger hippocampi than your average driver.

While Bohbot worries that we're in a "use it or lose it" battle with our brains, the cabbie study suggests that our hippocampi are capable of positive structural change—probably even if you're currently a GPS zombie.

As you all know, I'm a tech geek, so I won't be uninstalling Google Maps and Navigation on my Android phone anytime soon nor picketing Garmin corporate headquarters. No, like all knew technology, we just need to learn how to use our GPS devices in a way that won't harm us, or design them in a way that will help us.

So, without further ado, here are my two tricks for using a GPS while still stimulating your brain:

1) Mute your GPS. That wacky voice on your Tom-Tom was annoying you anyway. The device will still visually guide you to your destination, but you'll be responsible for finding the upcoming street name.

2) Use the GPS to get there, but use your brain to get back home. Remember those funny TV shows when you were a kid, where someone would drop an unwanted pet in the woods and they'd show up on their doorstep hours later? Try to be that pet.

And here are two ways that GPS manufacturers could revitalize their products and help mitigate their role in all this:

1) Three strikes, GPS out. After a user has navigated the same route three times, the GPS device could encourage users to try the route on their own. The device would still be active, following the route, but the map and instructions would be replaced by one big "GIVE ME A HINT!" button on the screen, or a voice-activated cry for help.

2) Turn navigation-skill building into a game or learning tool. As a GPS device stores routes, they are sorted into two categories: "I know my way here!" and "I'm still learning!" The device becomes a teacher, asking questions instead of giving instructions (answered by voice, of course), and awards points to users who successfully navigate routes without its help.

What else can we do to save our brains? Click the "Join the discussion here!" link below and leave a comment.

Find me on Twitter: @rondoylewrites

Check out my Blog Salad, my humor blog about design, technology and general geekiness: BlogSaladBlog.com

Copyright Ron S. Doyle. 

Ron Doyle is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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