Slashdot is powered by your submissions, so send in your scoop


Forgot your password?
Medicine Software Transportation Science Technology

Satellite Navigation 'Switches Off' Parts of Brain Used For Navigation, Study Finds ( 158

A new study published today in the journal Nature Communications reveals some of the drawbacks of using satellite navigation (SatNav) technology. After scanning the brains of 24 volunteers as they explored a simulation through the streets of London's Soho district, researchers from the University of London found that listening to a satellite navigation's instructions "switches off" activity in parts of the brain used for navigation. Scientific American reports: The researchers found that a brain structure called the hippocampus, which is involved in both memory and spatial navigation, appears to encode two different maps of the environment: One tracks the distance to the final destination as the crow flies and is encoded by the frontal region of the hippocampus, the other tracks the "true path" to the goal and is encoded by its rear region. During the navigation tasks, the hippocampus acts like a flexible guidance system, flipping between these two maps according to changing demands. Activity in the hippocampal rear region acts like a homing signal, increasing as the goal gets closer. Analysis of the brain-scanning data revealed activity in the rear right of the hippocampus increased whenever the participants entered a new street while navigating. It also varied with the number of new path options available. The more alternatives there were, the greater the brain activity. The researchers also found that activity in the front of the hippocampus was associated with a property called centrality, defined by the proximity of each new street to the center of the network. Further, they observed activity in the participants' prefrontal cortices when they were forced to make a detour and had to replan their route -- and this, too, increased in relation to the number of options available. Intriguingly, when participants followed SatNav instructions, however, brain activity in these regions "switched off." Together, the new findings suggest the rear portion of the hippocampus reactivates spatial memories of possible navigation paths, with more available paths evoking more activity, and that the prefrontal cortex may contribute to path-planning by searching though different route options and selecting the best one.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Satellite Navigation 'Switches Off' Parts of Brain Used For Navigation, Study Finds

Comments Filter:
  • by Zemran ( 3101 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:37PM (#54085985) Homepage Journal
    Two of my friends run a courier company and I have found that most of their drivers actually cannot understand how to use a map. When talking to them I tend to use map related references but today, they just listen to their satnavs and cannot understand how maps work. They have trouble knowing where they are in real terms although they can tell you generally by using the satnav.
    • This is the reality of augmented biology, just like the testosterone producing organs shrink when taking IV steroids, the navigation parts of the brain will shrink if all you do is rely on SatNav to find your way.

      • This is the reality of augmented biology, just like the testosterone producing organs shrink when taking IV steroids, the navigation parts of the brain will shrink if all you do is rely on SatNav to find your way.

        I dunno. Mental direction mapping is not something that is universal. While I can play the old "Which direction does the sun rise on in our new house?" game with my wife, and while otherwise brilliant, she falls for it - I can use a GPS for directions once, and if I need to go that way again, I don't even need to turn the device on. If it made people worse, I wouldn't be able to navigate myself any more.

        This study is deeply flawed. Their test subjects need to start out with a good sense of direction, and

        • I'm pretty good with direction finding, but I do find myself using satnav as a crutch mostly for final approach problems in urban areas, and whereas I might have to study a map once to plan a route and execute it, if I'm using satnav I might have to drive the route 2 or 3 times to get the same confidence in repeating the exercise as I would for map study plus one execution - no surprise, the study step has been removed, so learning should be expected to be less on the first trip.

          What also makes a difference

    • I recall years ago, there was speculation that non PDA-using man's newly-formed friendship with the canine species led to 'tracking prey via smell' as a task being offloaded to the dogs - leaving spare capacity for the brain to develop into PDA-using man.

      As far as getting from A to B - the drivers are as involved as they need to be.

      • Since we're talking about something that happened tens of thousands or maybe hundreds of thousands of years ago, I'm guessing that "PDA" does not refer to "Personal Digital Assistant". "Public Displays of Affection" also does not seem to make sense. So what does PDA mean in this context?
    • I'm amazed this needed to be studied. Still remember the first time I rented a GPS on a business trip. 2 days I to the trip it was clear as day I had no idea how I got from A to B. The GPS just handled it. The converse though is interactive apps like Waze...Where I monitor whether it's accurate or not. Or just letting it lead you and learning side roads as a result. Giveth, taketh and maybe giveth back again
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Cramer ( 69040 )

        Exactly. They really had to research that the parts of the brain that handle navigation aren't active when we aren't navigating?!? That's part of the reason we use a GPS in the first place... so we don't have to think about it. (the key reason being, we don't have a clue where the hell we're going.)

        • by dwywit ( 1109409 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @04:50AM (#54086559)

          Yeah, but - use it or lose it. I'm scared about *anything* that reduces our cognitive ability/ies.

          And it's not so much that we don't have a clue where the hell we're going, it's more that we don't give a damn to find out, when the technology will take care of it.

          Fair enough, I suppose, except when the technology proves unreliable cough*apple maps* cough.

          • by peragrin ( 659227 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @05:08AM (#54086585)

            It isn't losing cognitive ability, it is paying attention to what is going on.

            I bet if you took that exact same group and gave them a guide who gave them directions all the time the exact same situation would develop.

            I had a guide for a hiking trip I did and while I can recreate parts of the trip from memory it is only the parts where I had studied the map of where we were and when.

            People are lazy. If they don't have to think about something they won't.

            • People are lazy. If they don't have to think about something they won't.

              It's not that people are lazy, it's that people have finite attention and need to divide it among a whole lot of tasks. Quite often I find myself glad that I don't need to do something complicated like read place names and signs while trying to navigate a busy road.

        • by jwhyche ( 6192 )

          This actually makes perfect sense now that I think about it. I used my gps to find my new job. Three months later I was still using it to find where I worked. I use my phones gps all the time to get around memphis. I doubt I could find any place with out it. But my home town, my first time back there in 10 years and I knew where every place was.

        • Exactly. They really had to research that the parts of the brain that handle navigation aren't active when we aren't navigating?!? That's part of the reason we use a GPS in the first place... so we don't have to think about it. (the key reason being, we don't have a clue where the hell we're going.)

          Bad research too. Road sign technology with arrows telling you which way to turn has done away with the need for compasses and astrolabes too. It isn't electronics, but it is a method of making travelling much easier. So is GPS guidance.

          I really don't buy this study. Because it isn't terribly definitive. In order to come up with a real conclusion, you would need people who have good mental mapping abilities, because a fair subset of the population has no ability, or a cockeyed one (think of the people who

    • big map books of the local area are not that easy to use in the car and what if you need 2-3 of them cover the drivers zone?

      • big map books of the local area are not that easy to use in the car and what if you need 2-3 of them cover the drivers zone?

        Well, we had three of those guidebooks (Thomas Bros) and we looked at them when not actively driving. Basically there was a planning stage where we created a mental map, it was enough or it was supplemented by notes (street names, distances, turns, etc.). Then once we had a plan we executed the plan. It really was not much trouble, two or three minutes up front before you started driving.

        I confess that my guides are 10+ years old and move from trunk of old car to trunk of new car unused. Off in the wilds

    • You can never be sure how much of those effects is cultural, and how much is just plain old-fashioned stupidity. Back in 1976 or thereabouts I went into a shop in London (England) to buy an alarm clock/radio. Having found one I liked, with the added attraction of a 25% discount, I told a young shop assistant that I'd like to buy it.

      The sticker price was £30, with a 25% discount. He got out a calculator, played around with it for a while, then announced that I had to pay £34.81. I had to call the

      • And in this particular case, you calculate the end price in your mind quicker than you can type into a calculator.

    • We bought a new house last year and it was a few months before it was on most maps[1]. The number of delivery drivers that got lost was incredible. We gave them clear directions from the nearest main road, but most of them couldn't manage to follow them. Our road is just past a large office block and so all they needed to do was get to that office building (been there for decades, on all of the maps) and then follow the road around. We also told them which turning to take off the road that led to that o

      • apparently looking pretty is far more important than having accurate data.

        yeah, most people believe that. People figure if they put very little effort into ease-of-use (aka aesthetics) they probably put very little effort into accuracy. It's not true, but humans are the desired userbase and humans use such heuristics.

        Everybody has been telling OSM that for a decade but they refuse to accept that reality, so the userbase remains small. It's a shame to cede the territory to Google.

      • I tried to order a taxi once. I was in front of an extremely brightly coloured restaurant and opposite a large supermarket - the only one on that street. I knew the name of the street, and it's a quarter of a mile long at most.

        No, we need a house number.

  • by Whatsisname ( 891214 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:40PM (#54085991) Homepage

    I have noticed this behavior myself, and I used the same phrase, that my brain essentially shuts off when the computerized directions are being given.

    What's weird though, is that the same thing doesn't seem to happen if I have an actual person giving me directions. If I listen to the computer, I can't remember shit. If a passenger looks at the map and does essentially the same function, I can remember everything fine and well. I wonder what the difference is between the two that results in such a different neurological outcome.

    • by lindseyp ( 988332 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:46PM (#54086007)

      I prefer to have the map on the screen with a north-up orientation no matter which way I'm travelling. I find it helps me keep my bearings and learn routes rather than surrender to the machine's step-by-step instructrions.

      • I prefer to have the map on the screen with a north-up orientation no matter which way I'm travelling. I find it helps me keep my bearings and learn routes rather than surrender to the machine's step-by-step instructrions.

        That's one way to do it, I guess. Personally, I just occasionally glance at the direction information on the electronic compass in my car (i.e. the compass direction that I am heading). For me, though, the biggest revelation was when I looked up how the US does route numbering. Routes that end in odd numbers are North South routes and routes that end in even numbers are East-West routes. It doesn't help much on side roads but once on major roads it helps you get close.

        • US route numbering is fairly consistent. However, you might want to travel US 52. Sometimes it's signed north south; other times it's signed east-west.
      • I'm the same. When I'm out riding on my bile, I just go a hundred or so miles in no particular pattern, when I use the gps on for the return, I watch the map.

        I can still re-create my memorable rides without sat nav. But if I had to describe where the blueberry farm in Indiana is that I ride to, listening to me telling you that turning left at the funny farm house, going to the long drive past another farm, watch for the dukes of hazard bridge, cross that and follow the signs won't help you.

      • I rarely use GPS/navigation (my car has none for instance).
        So except when on sea I always have north up.

      • I much prefer to orient the map like the land (even a paper one), but if it works for you...

    • by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:53PM (#54086027) Journal

      Since our brains have to multitask when driving, perhaps we simply drop the redundant task?

      Perhaps, if you have a passenger sitting there with a map, you don't fully trust them?

      • by s.petry ( 762400 )

        Oh no, as GP stated I noticed the same thing and now try not to ever use map assists. Emergency issues are different in my opinion.

        I happened to move to a new State 5/6 years ago. I kept using Nav and could not find crap even after I had been there one or two times. In the past, I could get back to a place I found once using maps, including other States and Cities. I read a similar report to this and pretty quickly started using the computer to get the map and make the route, but no assist in when drivi

        • I found GPS directions were a good way of getting to know my way around when I moved here, but I looked at the planned route before I set off (walking or cycling) and was then able to look more at my surroundings. The phone in my pocket would tell me which turning to take, and so I'd get to know the routes very quickly and not need to look at the map. After a week, I wasn't bothering to set the directions. Having the GPS also gave me more confidence to explore - I could wander around in a random directio
      • I would guess that the difference is that a satnav device gives you step-by-step instruction that you can blindly follow.
        ("Turn left, turn right, stay on the left lane, etc.") the information is very low level and simple. Almost giving you direct instruction about what to input on the control interface of the car.
        (i.e.: you're mostly thinking about turning the wheel, pushing the pedals and fiddling with the transmission stick)

        Whereas a passenger with a map will *communicate* with you. You'd be having a disc

    • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @12:01AM (#54086051)

      You don't trust the person, the SatNav is there to guide you through missed turns, traffic jams ahead, and generally is a superior navigator to anyone you've ever had in the passenger seat reading a map, because the SatNav has access to more and better information.

      • by Imrik ( 148191 )

        Makes me wonder what happens if you have a passenger using the SatNav in a way that the driver can't eavesdrop.

    • by gweilo8888 ( 921799 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @02:56AM (#54086383)
      My guess would be that because your brain expects a human copilot to screw up the directions or not provide them soon enough, you continue to focus on the route yourself. Your modern GPS is so close to infallible, though, that your brain just expects the directions to work and switches off. I've experienced the same thing myself.
    • There's not much difference between my self-plotted route and the GPS route on when the roads are laid down in a grid. But a city nearby where I live has lots of curvy and bendy roads. When I plot a route on my own using a map, I tend to use intuitive directions - take a road until I'd pass the destination, turn, take the second road until I'd pass the destination, turn, take the third road until I'd pass the destination, etc. Basically, unravel the twisty roads into a quasi-grid, and plot a route along
    • ...If I listen to the computer, I can't remember shit. If a passenger looks at the map and does essentially the same function, I can remember everything fine and well...

      Could it be a default distrust of humans performing a repetitive and error prone task? So you listen more critically and perhaps engage in a conversation instead of simply executing tasks the navigator gives you.

      Perhaps a bad navigator is exactly what we need. One that gets it right roughly but where map knowledge produces a better result.

      My navigator is actually not that good. It's 6 years old, hasn't all the newest addresses and roads, and therefore sometime takes a bad route. Not only do I overrule

    • I have the voice on my GPS turned off. I already know my way around, or at least have a mental image of where I'm at and where I'm going. Leaving the voice off makes me look at the signs and compare them to the map. I do like the ETA feature when I'm going to or coming back from work. Understand that my work could be anywhere in half dozen states and hundreds of cities and towns.

      Don't let the device lead you; instead think of it as a digital map. Keep north at the top of the screen. Learn the way streets ar
    • We know our fellow humans are very error prone, so when another human is giving you directions, you're creating a map in your head to make sure it all makes sense. We trust our nav systems implicitly and can see the map on the screen ourselves, thus we have no need to create a map to organize our thoughts.

    • That makes sense. You implicitly trust the SatNav to be accurate, but other people's direction could be erroneous. Ergo, your brain is constantly fact-checking their directions.

    • that my brain essentially shuts off

      Does your brain shut off, or does it simply divert to another task like paying attention to the road? Your attention is a finite resource. Trying to figure out where you are is at odds with you manoeuvring a huge metal can on wheels through a dynamic obstacle course.

    • If I listen to the computer, I can't remember shit. If a passenger looks at the map and does essentially the same function, I can remember everything fine and well.

      You implicitly trust the computer. When a human tells you, your brain does not blindly trust and tries to figure out if what the person is saying is true.

      Computers never lie... unless programmed to do so.

  • I started out my career as a field service tech doing consulting work all over town. "Town," was a metro area of approximately 900 square miles. The city has a grid system with numbered streets running one direction and named streets running the other, and the numbered streets corresponded with the hundreds-digit of street address numbers on the named streets. If a business had the address 7501 W. Broadway, that meant it was on the South side of Broadway, just West of 75th Avenue.

    It was a little bit hard

  • Scientists determined that those people who made use of machine washing rather than hand washing had diminished hand strength and neurological motor communication necessary for fine motor control. Seamstresses who bought thread rather than using the spinning jenny were similarly impaired. But worst off were teamsters who used the internal combustion trucks rather than teams of horses and used forklifts and other mechanical devices rather than loading their vehicles by hand. Their overall body strength was much reduced.
    • But as far as I can tell, they're not making any statement about long term change at all - it's just that when you're using navigation assistance, the part of your brain which would otherwise handle that itself simply turns off.

      I'm not sure what the problem is - other than the fact that, under those circumstances, your brain is not learning the route, I guess. And if that's what they're saying, I take issue with that. I've used Waze to get me to locations I've never visited, then subsequently been able to d

  • Old Problem (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Idou ( 572394 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:51PM (#54086015) Journal
    Socrates on books:

    If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.

    There are plenty of problems left in this world to apply unused brain tissue to. . . Freeing up brain matter to be applied to new problems is how we progress as a species.

    • It also makes for hilarious anecdotes when you steal somebody's navigator and turn them loose in the woods.

      • That's pretty awful of you stealing somebody's $80,000 SUV and then laughing about it after dumping them in the woods.

        Who are you, Tony Soprano?

    • What Socrates stated in a better translation is that there is no way to teach Philosophy with a book. Philosophy is taught through interrogation of concepts and ideas. (Cambridge Texts:Linguistic/Historical)

      Which is of course what we call "The Socratic Method". Most people are not taught the method and don't bother to read the method even though there are plenty of books. Socrates was more often correct than not.

      • The Socratic Method is essentially the scientific method. ie, science.
        • by narcc ( 412956 )

          No, no it is not. Not even if you squint and tilt your head.

          • From wikipedia:

            Socrates' interlocutor asserts a thesis, for example "Courage is endurance of the soul", which Socrates considers false and targets for refutation.
            Socrates secures his interlocutor's agreement to further premises, for example "Courage is a fine thing" and "Ignorant endurance is not a fine thing".
            Socrates then argues, and the interlocutor agrees, that these further premises imply the contrary of the original thesis; in this case, it leads to: "courage is not endurance of the soul".
            Socrates then claims that he has shown that his interlocutor's thesis is false and that its negation is true.

            This sounds a lot like observe, hypothesize, test, update.

            • by narcc ( 412956 )

              You're very confused. There is no relationship between the Socratic method and the scientific method. Your own example illustrates neither observation, hypothesis, or testing.

              Why argue this? They're obviously unrelated to one another. Why double-down on a simple mistake?

  • by pipingguy ( 566974 ) on Tuesday March 21, 2017 @11:56PM (#54086041)
    Computers is making us stupids.
  • Hippocampus != hypothalamus youo know? ROFL'd It made my night shift more pleasant

  • They should test if this also happens with persons. Maybe is an evolutionary behavior. For instance, a nomad group, leaded by a pathfinder can benefit from this behavior. The pathfinder only focuses on "directions" while the followers can focus on the surroundings, dangers, etc.

  • Isn't this obvious? It's what we want of technology: do the grunt work so we don't have to. I wanna be hummin' to my fav tunes in the car, not watching for turning landmarks.

    Brains are metabolically quite expensive. Therefore, evolution has designed brains to be lazy and kick into cruse control when it can to conserve energy.

    • Isn't this obvious?

      You knew about the interaction between the front and rear hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex? Heck, why did the researchers bother doing the fMRI study rather than posting an Ask Slashdot?

      I presume here you're not simply reacting to the clickbait headline - that would be unkind.

  • I can't help thinking of the side splitting entertainment value that could be associated with navigation devices. Imagine for example shuffling around the sound files so that left is fight and 300 metres is 100 metres. Simple hack really. Of course you would also need access to their phone and camera to observe your work but the lulz man, think of the lolly lol lols.

    The consequences this article is suggesting are a little unsurprising. Apart from people give up their ability to think critically and reason

  • by baadfood ( 690464 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @02:47AM (#54086361)

    "Switches off parts of Brain" is just a very dramatic way of saying "You won't remember the route".

    "Oooo, I better read the article, lest I become permanently retarded next time I use a GPS!"

  • by TigerPlish ( 174064 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @02:48AM (#54086365)

    ...reading maps while driving / biking is asinine. Before satnav I used to plot a route to a new destination using a map,. and distill that to a single 3x5" (approx) piece of paper (a crib) I'd tape to the steering wheel hub or handle bars. Worked fine, but wouldn't adapt to real-time changes.

    If you ask me, GPS satnav is the best thing to come out of the Cold War. It's still fallible... but it sure beats spending 15 minutes at a stop-n'-rob parking lot with a map unfolded over the car's hood plotting your next move.. can of Coke in one hand and lit marlboro in the other.. yeah.. I just god a good memory of a trip across the SE USA in a 1984 Rx-7, reading paper maps in parking lots =o)

    But... I agree.. map-reading is a skill that must be preserved and taught. AB-so-lute-ly. I am a firm believer in first learning the tried-and-true paper-and-pencil methods. Even in meteorology school in the early 90's I understood it -- learn to do it the old way, and when the new way fails, you'll still be able to perform. And ... y'know? Many times doing it the pencil and paper way showed me things that computers just glossed over.. things that made a huge difference.

    • I've always had trouble with maps. Reading them is the easy part. Getting the damn things folded or unfolded is the tough part. :-p

      I haven't done much with GPSs. I did more travelling before they existed. I recently went on a trip with a friend who used one, and I got to see a number of its limitations. Based on that, and on what I've heard about them, I'd say they're probably a good thing, but you have to take them with a grain of salt.

  • Scaremongering (Score:4, Insightful)

    by abies ( 607076 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @03:12AM (#54086403)

    From the title, it sounds like part of your brain is lost forever.

    Question is not really if you are using same part of brain while navigating with or without GPS (it seems obvious there will be different parts activated). Interesting questions are:
    - if after navigating with GPS for long enough, your ability to navigate without it in new terrain is hindered considerably, assuming you have grown up without reliance on GPS?
    - is new generation which relied on GPS from very young age measurably worse at non-aided navigaton that other people?

  • by n329619 ( 4901461 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @04:53AM (#54086561)

    GPS Map: Turn Left,

    GPS Map: Then Turn Left,

    GPS Map: Turn Left again on the next intersection.

    Me: Wait... have I been here before? oh well, I sure hope it's right.

    GPS Map: Turn Left,

    • by narcc ( 412956 )

      So close to a great joke, until that last 'turn left' spoiled it.

      Two wrongs, as you know, don't make a right. But three lefts do.

  • Is this just an elaborate excuse by one of the authors 'cos he followed this GPS and took a turn into a field?!

  • This explains a lot. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Desprez ( 702166 ) on Wednesday March 22, 2017 @07:16AM (#54086879)
    In hindsight, I've noticed this myself, but never really gave it much thought.

    It also explains an annoyance I've found in games.

    Over the years, game have increasingly added more and more navigation features to lead you to your goal. And it seems the more "hand-holdy" they become, the less I can remember where I'm at, where I'm going, how to get there, or what the overall area layout is like. And if I'm not alone here, player's then rely more on the waypoins, etc. And this in turn, seems to cause developers to become ever more helpful with navigation aids. And so on.

    I've always attributed this to some kind of fundamental difference between real and virtual worlds. As I'm always thinking about how I'm never this lost in real life, how can I be so turned around in the game? So this make perfect sense.

    Additionally, I wonder if this explains the difference between rotating and static minimaps. The rotating maps give me a better indication of how to get to a specific spot, but lead me to have zero understanding of the area. Whereas static maps let me understand the area, and I've apparently learned how to use them to get to a specific spot. (Though this might also be influenced by my upbringing in a time before smartphone maps.)

    So I find it interesting that the very things to help you navigate might make you worse at it.
    Which is also why the minimap is so crucial to getting a feel for, and understanding the area. For me, it seems to counter-act the disorienting effect of over-reliance of navigation aids. So when developers decide that they don't want to have a minimap for reasons, yet still include all the hand-holding, I now understand why this is the worst-case for actually understanding the area.

    It seems the solution would be then, if you're against minimaps and want to encourage more natural exploration, you should also remove most of the navigation aids as well. Anything more than perhaps a compass, and a maybe a goal direction on that compass, will actually make players more lost, and have less of an understanding of the world you've created.
  • Using GPS means you don't have to think about how to get where you're going. Shocking.
  • Computer AI shuts off the part of the brain used for thinking.
    See, programmers are gods.

  • Was just watching this: []

    There's a woman who has such an atrocious sense of direction she can get lost in her own house. Apparently she's playing video games & it's helping to rewire her noggin.

%DCL-MEM-BAD, bad memory VMS-F-PDGERS, pudding between the ears