Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Connectivity

This Is Your Brain on GPS Navigation

Parts of the brain that are used to navigate and plan routes aren’t active when directions are fed to us.

London's streets can be tough to navigate, day or night.

We’ve all come to rely on smartphones and in-car GPS systems to find our way in the world. But when we follow their directions, the parts of our brain usually used for navigation appear to sit idle.

A series of experiments performed by researchers at University College London had volunteers navigate simulations of the area known as Soho in the U.K.'s capital, while fMRI scans captured their brain activity. Sometimes they had to find their own routes, other times they were fed turn-by-turn directions similar to those given by a car’s GPS or a smartphone.

The results show that when navigating the old-fashioned way, spikes of neuronal activity in their hippocampus, a brain region linked to navigation, and the prefrontal cortex, associated with planning, occur as people enter new streets. The spikes are more pronounced when there are more possible choices to make on an upcoming stretch of road. That activity isn't observed when people are receiving turn-by-turn directions.

“When we have technology telling us which way to go ... these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network,” explained Hugo Spiers, who led the research, to the Guardian. “In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”

Interestingly, the study also shows that, when it’s active, the hippocampus also appears to keep track of the progress made during a journey. So it’s perhaps not surprising that when navigation systems do betray us—a problem that is, mercifully, becoming increasingly rare—we’re left at rather a loss over how to rectify the situation.

As for how it’s affecting the human ability to navigate more generally? Well, this is a single study, so it’s unreasonable to draw sweeping conclusions. But Spiers does warn Scientific American that “if you think about the brain as a muscle, then certain activities, like learning maps of London’s streets, are like body building … and all we can really say from our new findings is that you’re not working out these particular bits of the brain when you’re relying on [turn-by-turn directions].”

(Read more: Nature Communications, Guardian, Scientific American, “You Are the Real Winner Of the Mobile Maps Wars”)

At EmTech MIT, our journalism is brought to life.
Network with like-minded professionals to stay in the know.

Learn more and register
London's streets can be tough to navigate, day or night.
More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.