The increasing ubiquity of digital information has given rise to not a few debates on the superiority of these new formats. Ebooks have yet to replace paper in many people’s hearts, not to mention on their shelves. Digitization of archives and artifacts, as we know, is costly and leaves a lot behind. Some people are (still!) insisting that email has nothing on a “real”, paper letter, even as email is left in the dust by social networking and chat. And speaking of social networking, there has been no end of discussion by naysayers on the use of the word “friends” in that context.
However, some things seem unquestionably to have been improved by the digital age. Maps, for example. It’s hard to beat the convenience of Google Maps when gauging how long a journey will take. GPS, whether mounted on your dashboard or installed on your smartphone, offers reassurance in unfamiliar territory.
But by ditching paper maps — and our own sense of direction — we might be losing a lot more. Last year John McKinney, writing for Miller-McCune, reported on a study led by Toru Ishikawa at the University of Tokyo that asked participants to navigate on foot from point A to point B. Some were given a GPS device, some were given maps, and others had the route described to them by a researcher. From the abstract:
Results showed that GPS users traveled longer distances and made more stops during the walk than map users and direct-experience participants. Also, GPS users traveled more slowly, made larger direction errors, drew sketch maps with poorer topological accuracy, and rated wayfinding tasks as more difficult than direct-experience participants.
In other words, GPS was not more efficient than other methods, and participants paid less attention to their surroundings while using it. Quoted in McKinney’s article, cartographer and publisher Tom Harrison remarks that “We seem to be rushing away from using our ability to navigate in the real world.”
The detrimental effects of GPS may extend further than just missing out on the scenery. In an article eloquently titled "Are GPS zombies eating your brain?", Psychology Today's Ron S. Doyle reports on research done by Veronique Bohbot of McGill University, that found that over-reliance on stimulus-response strategies in navigation (GPS is one) shrinks the hippocampus, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. (The hippocampus is where we “keep” our “cognitive maps”.)
For a comprehensive overview of this issue, see Global Impositioning Systems by Alex Hutchinson, from the Canadian magazine The Walrus. Among other things, Hutchinson suggests that we may soon have to exercise our brains the same way we do our bodies — to make up for exercise we might once have gained naturally.