Are we go­ing brain dud?

Our over-de­pen­dence on GPS is making our brain less smart, says re­search

Gulf News - - Front Page - BY MALAVIKA KAMARAJU Fea­tures Ed­i­tor

Ex­perts are say­ing that our overde­pen­dence on GPS is po­ten­tially harm­ing our spa­tial and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to the point of wast­ing our brain

They could be 18, 48 or 58 years old but what’s com­mon to these gen­er­a­tional in­di­vid­u­als is that when they get be­hind the wheel, and pick a des­ti­na­tion, they would in all prob­a­bil­ity turn on the GPS rather than fall back on their spa­tial and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to get to the des­ti­na­tion. Our mo­dem-day de­pen­dence on the GPS, con­ve­nient and ac­cu­rate as it is, is po­ten­tially harm­ing our per­cep­tion, judge­ment and neu­rosen­sory ca­pac­i­ties, says re­search. “When peo­ple are told which way to turn, it re­lieves them of the need to cre­ate their own routes and re­mem­ber them,” says M.R. O’Con­nor, au­thor of Wayfind­ing: The Sci­ence and Mys­tery of How Hu­mans Nav­i­gate the World, writ­ing in the Washington Post. “They pay less at­ten­tion to their sur­round­ings. And neu­ro­sci­en­tists can now see that brain be­hav­iour changes when peo­ple rely on turn-by­turn di­rec­tions.”


“We do not know that for sure, but it is fully pos­si­ble. Us­ing GPS any­how leads to re­duced ac­tiv­ity in the hip­pocam­pus and part of the pre­frontal cor­tex com­pared to not us­ing GPS,” says Dr Carl Ram­berg, Neu­rol­o­gist — Ger­man Neu­ro­science Cen­tre, Dubai.

R emark­ably [the hip­pocam­pus] is the part of the brain that neu­ro­sci­en­tists be­lieve gives us the abil­ity to imag­ine our­selves in the fu­ture.” Dr Carl Ram­berg | Neu­rol­o­gist


The bi­lat­eral hip­pocampi are sea­horse-shaped struc­tures deep in the tem­po­ral lobes that are part of the lim­bic sys­tem.

The main func­tions are 1) writ­ing/im­print­ing of declar­a­tive mem­o­ries and 2) writ­ing/ im­print­ing of spa­tial mem­o­ries, like an in­ter­nal map of places you have been, and works as a po­si­tional sys­tem/“in­ter­nal GPS”.

“I have heard a pro­fes­sor say that the hip­pocam­pus is the brain’s hard disc,” says Dr Ram­berg. “I be­lieve that a more cor­rect de­scrip­tion is: “Hip­pocam­pus is the pen with which we can write our long-term mem­o­ries — the ink be­ing the sen­sa­tions — and the pa­per be­ing the cor­tex. (From The Bi­ol­ogy of Thought, 2015.)

“In 2014, the No­bel Prize in Medicine and Phys­i­ol­ogy was awarded to the dis­cov­ery of that the hip­pocam­pus (and en­torhi­nal cor­tex) works as a po­si­tional sys­tem in the brain,” Dr Ram­berg adds.


The hip­pocam­pus is cru­cial to many as­pects of daily life, ac­cord­ing to Dr Ram­berg. “It al­lows us to ori­ent in space and know where we are by cre­at­ing cog­ni­tive maps. It also al­lows us to re­call events from the past. And, re­mark­ably, it is the part of the brain that neu­ro­sci­en­tists be­lieve gives us the abil­ity to imag­ine our­selves in the fu­ture.

The hip­pocam­pus is the most plas­tic part of the brain, he adds. “It may re­build it­self as a re­sult of stim­uli or ab­sence of stim­uli. See the changes in the hip­pocampi of taxi drivers and blind peo­ple. Ex­pe­ri­ences like nav­i­gat­ing through a lot of places or be­ing blind changes the hip­pocam­pus a lot.

“The hip­pocam­pus is very vul­ner­a­ble. Long-term el­e­vated cor­ti­sol levels, like when you are stressed and de­pressed, re­duces the cog­ni­tion and may cause the hip­pocam­pus to shrink (at­ro­phy) up to 10-15 per cent. Hip­pocam­pus how­ever has a great abil­ity to re­pair it­self — it has high plas­tic­ity,” says Dr Ram­berg.


In a study pub­lished in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in 2017, re­searchers asked sub­jects to nav­i­gate a vir­tual sim­u­la­tion of Lon­don’s Soho neigh­bour­hood and mon­i­tored their brain ac­tiv­ity, specif­i­cally the hip­pocam­pus, which is in­te­gral to spa­tial nav­i­ga­tion. Those who were guided by di­rec­tions showed less ac­tiv­ity in this part of the brain than par­tic­i­pants who nav­i­gated without the de­vice.

“The hip­pocam­pus makes an in­ter­nal map of the en­vi­ron­ment and this map be­comes ac­tive only when you are en­gaged in nav­i­gat­ing and not us­ing GPS,”

Amir-Ho­may­oun Javadi, one of the study’s au­thors, told the Washington Post.

The re­search showed that the pos­te­rior part of the hip­pocam­pus is larger in these drivers than in the gen­eral pub­lic, and that a pos­i­tive cor­re­la­tion ex­ists be­tween the length of time served as a driver and the in­crease in the vol­ume of this part.

“These dif­fer­ences may re­flect adap­tive re­sponses to sen­sory de­pri­va­tion, and/or in­creased func­tional de­mands on memory sys­tems,” says Dr Ram­berg. “It is not fully known how the taxi drivers got in­creased pos­te­rior hip­pocampi. I would guess that the in­crease is due to for­ma­tion of new ‘place cells’ from stem cells to make their ‘in­ter­nal maps’ and GPS bet­ter. It seems that there is a ca­pac­ity for lo­cal plas­tic change in the struc­ture of the healthy adult hu­man brain in re­sponse to en­vi­ron­men­tal de­mands.”


Amer­i­can neu­ro­sci­en­tist Véronique Bo­hbot has found that us­ing spa­tial-memory strate­gies for nav­i­ga­tion cor­re­lates with in­creased grey mat­ter in the hip­pocam­pus at any age. She thinks that pay­ing at­ten­tion to the spa­tial re­la­tion­ships of places in our en­vi­ron­ment might help off­set age-re­lated cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments or even neu­rode­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases.

“If we are pay­ing at­ten­tion to our en­vi­ron­ment, we are stim­u­lat­ing our hip­pocam­pus, and a big­ger hip­pocam­pus seems to be pro­tec­tive against Alzheimer’s disease,” Bo­hbot told the

Washington Post. “When we get lost, it ac­ti­vates the hip­pocam­pus, it gets us com­pletely out of the habit mode. Get­ting lost is good!” Done safely, get­ting lost could be a good thing.”


Ac­cord­ing to another re­search, nav­i­ga­tion ap­ti­tude in hu­mans ap­pears to peak around age 19, and af­ter that, most peo­ple slowly stop us­ing spa­tial memory strate­gies to find their way, re­ly­ing on habit in­stead.

“The brain is full grown when you are around 20 years old,” says Dr Ram­berg.

“Some abil­i­ties, like learn­ing a new lan­guage without an ac­cent, are more dif­fi­cult to ac­quire af­ter your teenage years.”

Does ex­er­cis­ing the hip­pocam­pus help off­set age-re­lated cog­ni­tive im­pair­ments or even neuro-de­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases? “High IQ may de­lay de­men­tia. De­men­tia makes the hip­pocam­pus smaller. So yes, ex­er­cis­ing the hip­pocam­pus, making more con­nec­tions in it may de­lay cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment, but we do not know if that is the case or not,” says Dr Ram­berg.

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