Apparently, underneath my smoldering reluctance to use GPS is an amazing truth—not only in who I am, but in the way I have chosen to approach navigation and directions. My reluctance to use GPS and my fascination with maps—even the unwieldy ones that unfold and unfold and unfold into something that is far more than a driving distraction—has been working parts of my brain that are dying off in those who rely on a computerized voice to tell them where to go.
This realization came when I was listening to a story on GPS technology on NPR’s OnPoint. While the program focused on digital mapping technology, the guests also touched on our increasing reliance (in fact, dependence) on this technology. When we need to navigate unfamiliar territory, we simply turn to our phones, as we do for many things these days. Regardless of the convoluted directions we seem to be following, we trust our digital navigation systems to get us where we want to go.
However, humans have a built in ability to navigate the world—to figure out how to get from one place to another using things such as celestial bodies, earthly forces, our own knowledge of our surroundings, the maps that have been created of those surroundings, landmarks, and our own instincts. These things together give us a broad picture of what is around us and where we are heading.
The technology we have now, while convenient, allows us to navigate in a passive manner. Essentially, we have a tool that leads us, and we don’t have to pay attention to anything but the tinny, computerized voice emanating from the small box we hold in our hands. “Turn left in 100 feet,” it tells us, and we do. If we look at the unwieldy map, we might see that straight through the next four intersections we would come to an incredibly cool pink lake that would be awesome to see before we turn left on a different path that will still lead to our destination.
In this same NPR story, one of the guests referenced a study done in London on GPS navigation versus the use of maps and navigational techniques to find our way. The navigational part of the brain was fully lit up in those who were using a map to navigate the streets of London, but it was completely dark in those relying on GPS navigation. Completely dark. As in not being used. Where brains are concerned, that is not good news.
So the next time my children say, “Mom, just turn on your GPS,” I will just say, “No thank you.” There is a time and a place for GPS. If I am lost in a strange place and need to get somewhere by a certain time, I might turn on my GPS.
But getting lost is actually an adventure that can lead to amazing places. Unfolding a map and using my brain is the more active way to get where I am going. And maybe in the wandering, I will do some sightseeing, discover a new path, and make some new friends along the way.