Are we going brain dud?
Our over-dependence on GPS is making our brain less smart, says research
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.”
HOW TRUE IS THIS?
“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
WHAT IS THE HIPPOCAMPUS?
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.
WHY IS THE HIPPOCAMPUS SO IMPORTANT?
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.
USE IT OR LOSE IT
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.”
PAYING ATTENTION IS GOOD FOR THE BRAIN
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.”
DON’T RELY ON HABIT
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.