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Is reliance on GPS making us lose our mapping minds?

May 16, 2016  - By

cozzens_tracy_4_130By Tracy Cozzens
Managing Editor

I love maps. As a child, I was my family’s designated navigator on car trips (or my parents indulged me!).

I studied our roadmaps, searching out each legend icon on the map and finding icons to look up on the legend. I would use the map’s indicators to determine the distance between points and interesting landmarks. I was such a map fanatic, that I spent time one summer recreating in a large size a map of the Ancient Roman Empire. My father asked why. I had no real answer, except that I love history and maps.

Today, some experts are warning that our ability to read and interpret maps might be in jeopardy because of our reliance on GPS devices. Some GPS-reliant drivers make massive blunders, such as a Syrian truck driver who ended up in Gibraltar Point, England, rather than Gibraltar on the south coast of Spain.

Former president of the Royal Institute of Navigation Roger McKinlay told Vox reporter Brad Plumer that our reliance on GPS might be causing our innate navigational capabilities to atrophy over time, which is a problem when our smartphones will only ever be as “smart” as the humans using them.

“Neuroscientists have discovered that our brains have two different specialized systems for navigation,” Plumer writes. “In one system, located in our hippocampus, we create spatial maps of the world around us, understanding how different streets and routes fit together. In the second, located in the caudate nucleus, we make a mental list of the different landmarks we encounter every day.”

By not figuring out routes using maps, and relying solely on turn-by-turn directions, our ability to work out spatial maps and determine our place in the natural world seems to worsen.

“McKinlay argues that schools should teach students map-reading and navigation as a critical life skill,” writes Plumer. “He also suggests that researchers start looking at whether there are ways to design GPS systems so that they help us learn about our environment rather than making us unaware of the world around us. (It’s unclear what exactly this would look like, but what if, as a default, these systems always walked us through the spatial map of where we were going?)”

This map lover is all for it.

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

4 Comments on "Is reliance on GPS making us lose our mapping minds?"

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  1. Bethany says:

    Great article, Tracy!

  2. GPS World staff says:

    Thank you, Bethany.

  3. GPS World staff says:

    I really enjoyed this article.

    I also find that when we use voice directions from navigator, we don’t need to look around and remember the time sequence of our surroundings.

    I can envision a type of mind exercise where we leaf through daily summaries of our trajectory on a map, to review how we traveled somewhere.
    Zooming in with a kind of “street view” where we can look around and catch details we missed might fill in information we didn’t catch in real time.

    A new mapping division at Lumosity?

    — Paul McBurney

  4. Would like to ask President Roger McKinlay whether there is way to recover our lost facility…