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How Technology Is Shrinking Your Brain - Importance of Using Our Spatial Memory

Updated on August 16, 2017

Functions of the Hippocampus:

The hippocampus is involved in several functions of the body including:

  • Consolidation of New Memories
  • Emotional Responses
  • Navigation
  • Spatial Orientation

About Spatial Memory

Spatial memory is a general phrase that refers to memory for spatial information, such as the geographical layout of your hometown or the interior of a friend's house.

We use spatial strategy when we build mental maps using associations between landmarks to help us determine where we are, but also help us plan where we want to go, finding shortcuts when going to new destinations.

Help! My hippocampus is shrinking!

The hippocampus got its name from the sea horse (hippocampus in Latin) because its curled shape reminds of one. It's formed by two parts: right and left hippocampi.
The hippocampus got its name from the sea horse (hippocampus in Latin) because its curled shape reminds of one. It's formed by two parts: right and left hippocampi. | Source

How to Increase Spatial Memory

So, to prevent losing my mind to a low efficiency hippocampus, I started to do the following:

  • When the route it’s not too long or complicated, I look up the directions online, visualize them, and then try to get there based on what I remember or from notes I took of the directions (and printouts).
  • As an alternative to the above, before hitting Go to destination on the GPS, I zoom out until I see the complete route highlighted, I get a visual idea of what direction I'll be moving and which streets I'll drive on, then I push Go .
  • If I need to use the GPS to go somewhere, I try at least to get back on my own. OK, I’m not telling about the times I doubled the time it should have taken me to get back, the important thing is that I made it home eventually, and all on my own.
  • I try to do memory games and brain puzzles - you can’t have enough stimulation of your gray matter!
  • I also eat healthy and exercise, they say it helps with memory as well, but I was already doing that before the noticing my loss of spatial memory.


Until a few years ago it was normal and necessary to have a paper road map in the car at all times, I used to plan my route looking at them.

The cool part is that I only had to do it on my way to the destination; on the way back I would usually find the route back on my own, relying on my memory and intuition. And I thought that was normal.

I Used to Remember My Way to Places

For years I fought the idea of purchasing a GPS even when sometimes I’d get lost in the middle of nowhere and my husband was making fun of me.

Back then, returning to a place, not matter how remote, I would remember how to get there. Because the first time I went I had created a visual memory of directions and landmarks on the way.

Now I Get Lost

A few years ago I caved in. We moved to a new city in a different State, and I felt like I needed serious help to make sense of all the unknown highways and streets crisscrossing town, so I bought a GPS.

I thought I would use it only for emergencies or first time ever trips to places. How delusional.

Gradually I started to rely on the GPS more and more, until I now realize that for some particular places that I visit seldom yet regularly, I have to set the GPS every single time, because I always get confused at certain intersections and get lost.

It got even worse when I got a smart phone. The map app is even more reliable than my old GPS because it gets real time info about road work and traffic.

What Happened to My Brain?

Is it possible that my mind is getting so lazy that it prefers to set the techy co-pilot rather than spend energy figuring out the route?

What happened to the me that was good with maps and directions? - Of course if you ask my husband he would tell you that she never existed, but that’s just because a couple of times he had to give me directions on the phone, while I was reading street signs to him lost in some unknown countryside, and he was looking them up on mapquest and figuring my way home. Quite a sorry situation, but it did not happen often, I swear.

I used to get a clear visual map of my itinerary in my head, and based on that get in the car and drive my way to my destination, with no second thoughts. Sure, sometimes I did print out directions from online, but the nice thing was to see the big picture.

Now, with the GPS telling me what’s ahead only until the next turn, I lost the big vision, and every trip sets a blurry memory of turns and landmarks that do not form a cohesive picture. It’s all foggy in my mind.

The use of paper maps kept my brain active, even re-folding them each time was a brain teaser.
The use of paper maps kept my brain active, even re-folding them each time was a brain teaser. | Source

About Loss of Spatial Memory

One day I was so fed up of this feeling of fogginess when trying to figure out a route on my own, that I did some research on the effect of the GPS on the brain.

Sure enough, and quite disappointingly I have to admit, I found confirmation of my fears. According to Véronique Bohbot, PhD. at McGill University, using the GPS regularly does damage your brain, specifically relying on the GPS all the time for finding your way around, can cause atrophy of the Hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in navigation and spatial memory.

And this was not the worst news! Apparently the atrophy of the Hippocampus, with related loss of spatial memory, is typically one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and it’s also very common in dementia due to a normal aging process.

Now, I’m not saying the GPS causes Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. I’m just reporting that the symptoms of overuse of GPS are somehow similar to those diseases. And I figured that if I am meant to get those, using the GPS will only quicken the process.

I freaked out. “I’m in my forties and I have symptoms that could possibly be the anteroom to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease? Because of the little black talking box?” Boy, was I scared.

Something needed to be done.

More Memory Research: the London Taxi Drivers

As if that information was not enough, I also found literature about a study on the hippocampi of long time London cab drivers. Their hippocampi were much larger than those of regular people, and they activate specifically when the taxi driver is asked to use spatial memory, and do not activate if asked for information about landmarks.

A definite proof that planning your own itinerary and finding shortcuts does keep you hippocampus healthy and active.

Success: Memory Improvement

Forcing myself to live a non-GPS-dependent life is helping. I feel like my brain is slowly starting to be clearer and I acquired a better view of my city's geographical layout.

The only side effect has been that finding my own route led to higher gas costs and more time behind the wheel, due to some, ehm... trial and error strategic itineraries. But some day I'll be like the London's cab drivers, with a hippocampus all plump and active, and no need to look at maps. I just have to keep working the hard way instead of relying totally on technology.

References:


  • Phys.org
  • The Douglas Institute, www.douglas.qc.ca
  • Annenberg learner, www.learner.org
  • Maguire, E., R. Frackowiak, and C. Firth. 1997. Recalling routes around London: Activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers. J. Neuroscience

© 2012 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Jane,

      Let's keep using those road maps girl, they will keep us younger! :) Thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

    • profile image

      jane-truecolors 5 years ago

      This post really gave mea boost, because I have a GPS and I never used it. And yes I do get lost regularly, but somehow I prefer pulling out my road map. I used to feel terribly old fashioned but with this reassuring news you made my day ! xx

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      @ DzyMsLizzy, I totally agree on technology being a double edged sword. It helps us a lot on many aspects of our life, but we have to be watchful not to abuse the extra help and loose our skills.

      @ JKenny, if it works for you, I'd suggest you stay away from the GPS as long as you can. I tell you, once you see the usefulness, it's hard to do without. Keep being clever. :)

      @ emilybee, your GPS tell you to "do an illegal U-turn"? I surely never heard that before. Not only it costs us our memory, but some traffic tickets too! lol

      All, I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. :)

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      @ Melovy, your husband is a pilot? Cool! He probably has many opportunities to keep his hippocampus active, and don't have to worry about spatial memory loss. Unfortunately some of the modern technology does make our brains "lazier".

      I think that with the technological progress, we have to find new ways to use the amazing powers of our mind.

      It will be interesting to see how future generations will handle this aspect of technology progressively taking over every-day tasks.

    • emilybee profile image

      emilybee 5 years ago

      Very interesting and I tend to agree. Folding the maps that many of us still keep in our cars, yet don't touch because of our handy gps, was a part of every road trip back in the day. I still manage to get lost while using my gps by turning at the wrong street. For me, gps helps because it instructs me to "make an illegal u-turn" to fix my errors :) voted up, sharing

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Interesting article, Robie. I've heard a lot of good things about GPS, but I'm not really a gadget man, and I actually like planning my own routes, makes me feel like I'm in control, plus it makes you feel clever too.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 5 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Very interesting, and yet somehow, not surprising. I have a GPS, and I do use it, but I do not rely upon it totally. I used to be very good with maps and navigation, and my younger daughter inherited that skill. My eldest, however, is more like my mother, who could get lost inside a shopping mall, or even in a teacup.

      Like you, once I've been somewhere, I can find my way home, and get there again on my own without the GPS. I mainly use it if hubby is with me, going someplace new, as he is very impatient and gets quite irritable if we happen to make a wrong turn or two and get a bit turned around. So, I punch in the GPS, and off we go. Alone, however, if I make a wrong turn, I can usually figure out how to get back on track, as I'm pretty good at compass points, and know which way I want to be heading. The only thing that fouls me up then are one-way or dead-end streets. Still and all, I've never been so lost as to have to call for directions. And I took my kids camping all over the western US by myself--with only old-fashioned paper maps as my guide--that was before internet and Mapquest..(which, by the way, is far from infallible...)

      But the phone thing--yeah--I don't have a 'smart phone,' and don't use a cell phone at all regularly. I only have a pay-as-you-go cell for emergencies--no one has the number, and I can't even remember what it is without looking it up. BUT.. ... the house phones do have a phone book built in, and yes, I hardly know anyone's numbers anymore. But back when my kids were growing up, we had the old "tied-to-the-wall-by-a-cord" phone with a rotary dial...and you could take my phone book away, read me a phone number at random, and I could tell you to whom it belonged. I know I've lost that ability.

      :-( Technology surely is a double-edged sword!

      Voted up, interesting, useful and shared.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 5 years ago from UK

      This is a very interesting hub. I had no idea relying on GPS could so this. I don’t use one much, but my husband does. But since he’s a pilot we can probably assume he gets enough other opportunities to exercise his hippocampus that he’ll be okay!

      I so agree on the phone numbers - I used to know so many numbers and now know far fewer.

      Voted up and sharing.

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi cocopreme, I'm with you on the the phone number problem. Sadly, I think I could still call my friends from middle school without looking them up, but there is no way I can remember my current friends numbers. Pretty scary... Kudos to your grandfather, way to go! :)

    • cocopreme profile image

      Candace Bacon 5 years ago from Far, far away

      I think your idea applies to all kinds of technology. This makes me think of cell phones. Before my contact list was in my phone, I could remember people's phone numbers because I manually dialed them. Now I know only a handful of numbers.

      I was watching my 88 year old grandfather call some of his friends from the hospital recently. He knew all of their numbers still because he actually punches in the numbers himself.

      I can't help but think that in an emergency, if I didn't have my phone, I might not be able to get in contact with anyone. Technology is making us stupider in many ways. Great hub and definitely something important to think about!

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Thanks everyone for commenting, it feels great to read that I am not the only one trying to limit the dependency on the GPS, even more now that I have scientific evidence.

      Well, apart from hecate-horus, but I respect the fact that you would not give the GPS up if you are not comfortable with maps etc.

      Thank you all for the stopping by and taking the time to write a note. :)

    • Robie Benve profile image
      Author

      Robie Benve 5 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Nettlemere, I didn't know GPs are doctors in the UK. I went back and added the spell out of GPS at the beginning of the hub and the summary to clear any confusion. Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad you liked it. :)

    • mljdgulley354 profile image

      mljdgulley354 5 years ago

      We travel a lot and have a GPS. We use it to find places we have never been and then put it away. Great information here.

    • hecate-horus profile image

      hecate-horus 5 years ago from Rowland Woods

      You have a valid point. But since I've always been horrible with maps and directions, the GPS will stay. Interesting hub.

    • vintagegliders profile image

      vintagegliders 5 years ago

      Great hub.My husband has always been against using a gps system for the same exact reasons.says he like to rely on his brain for finding new places and remembering.......what a concept lol voted up

    • Nettlemere profile image

      Nettlemere 5 years ago from Burnley, Lancashire, UK

      Apart from misreading the title to start with (in the UK GPs are doctors) cool article - I'm a technophobe and like to claim it's because all these bits of technology are making us less functional and resourceful - now you've given me proof!