How Using Your GPS Too Much Could Kill You

From wrong turns to physical maladies, satellite navigation creates risk

Posted Apr 01, 2016

Fumiste Studios
Source: Fumiste Studios

I’ve been navigating with compass and map since I was a boy, and I still find my way around in that Neanderthal way--instead of using my GPS-enabled smartphone--for one simple reason: I enjoy it.

However on a trip to Western Pennsylvania last week my son challenged me, as teenagers will, claiming he could navigate back to New York with his smartphone better and faster than I could by map and written directions.

So we set off, following the robot's advice. First we breezed by a tiny road, where the device wanted us to go; instead of suggesting we backtrack fifty feet, the GPS led us in a five-mile circle right back to where we started, so we could start again. Then it directed us straight up a steep Allegheny ridge, over a road that became a rough gravel track which would have been impassable in any kind of weather.

Luckily the weather was fine. And after an hour or so, the Google Maps GPS function led us to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, through a maze of back roads that, while they probably didn’t lessen our travel time much, allowed us to traverse country we’d never have seen otherwise; I am grateful to both Google and my son for that.

The fact remains, however, that while GPS—the Global Positioning [Satellite] System—is tremendously useful, and increasingly indispensable to our tech-driven economy, it can also, like all powerful tools, be dangerous. This danger happens in two ways.

The first peril comes from over-reliance on the technology, to the point where we become unable to cope when it fails. The examples are legion: A mother, following her GPS, drives her car (and kids) onto the commuter rail tracks in Brighton, Mass., just  managing to get her kids out before a commuter train crushes the car to tinfoil. A man, also following GPS instructions, drives his car across an active airport taxiway in Fairbanks, Alaska; also in Alaska, GPS leads a driver, and his vehicle, off a dock into Prince William Sound. A child dies when his mother's GPS directs them down the wrong road in Death Valley, Calif. The GPS of a huge cruise ship, the Royal Majesty, fails, but the ship’s officers don’t notice and follow the blinking cursor instead, till the ship runs aground on Nantucket Shoals. ... The British government tests what happens to a sample ship when its GPS is jammed, and in the wake of the disastrous results, concludes drily: “[Questions raised include] the ability of a vessel’s crew to quickly revert to traditional means of navigation and also the extent to which they are able to navigate with these means ... Given the greater reliance on satellite navigation, these skills are not being used daily and are no longer second nature.”

Because of GPS, more and more people are forgetting their personal navigation skills. Outside a New York bar, a tourist recently asked me for directions to Washington Square. She said the bartender, a young woman, couldn’t tell her where it was, as she relied on her smartphone for directions, and the phone’s battery was flat. The square was visible from where we stood, on the same street, two blocks away. This kind of navigational helplessness is becoming endemic, especially among Millennials.

There is another kind of danger though, and it’s much graver, if more insidious. Excessive reliance on GPS and related technologies—and the attendant dormancy of brain functions which we’d otherwise use to find our way around—is directly harming our physical health.

In a sequence of thorough clinical trials, Véronique Bohbot at McGill University in Montreal, Tom Hartley at UCL / London, and Denise Head at Washington University in St. Louis, have proved that people who consistently employ stimulus-response behavior in navigation—behavior that typifies GPS users, as opposed to those who actively navigate for themselves—suffer a measurable loss of gray matter in the hippocampus. (The hippocampus is the part of the brain that figures out where we are spatially.) This atrophy significantly increases their chances of contracting neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and dementia..

Bohbot, in a recent interview on the role of the hippocampus, put it succinctly: “Use it, or lose it.”

There’s a third drawback to completely abandoning our traditional navigational skills in favor of GPS. It’s not a danger, per se, but it’s real enough. Navigating with our own faculties, aided by charts, compass, a sense of direction, allows us to be in the world with the kind of power and emotion that comes only when we rely on our own skills to find our way through it—and risk getting lost if we don’t. Interacting in this way allows us to absorb how the world works, and also to understand how complex and beautiful it is; how complex and beautiful, also, is the part of us that can perform such elegant tasks.

[Next installment: Navigation, memory, and personality]