An interesting article published by Franco and others in the Scientific American tried to answer this question.
They suggest that prior to GPS, exploring and way finding new places required preparation – you had to think, consult paper maps, plan and memorise parts of your route.
However, in today’s technological world one does not need to think!
You just simply need to follow the turn by turn directions on your phone and they say you will end up hopefully where you should be.
However, your overall sense of place suffers.
Spatial navigation, which has been a process performed exclusively by the human brain and perceptual system, is surrendered to technology. However, does it matter?
They tell us that there are structures in the brain dedicated to complex path finding tasks.
The hippocampus is deeply associated with supporting spatial memory, spatial navigation and mental mapping.
Some anthropologists have gone so far as to suggest that navigation needs might have been the starting point for all memories.
Memory declines as we age and whilst there are no silver bullets for healthy aging, neuroscientists all agree that one of the key ingredients of successful aging is staying mentally active.
Studies have shown that we can actually exercise the hippocampus memory through exploration and spatial navigation.
Interestingly, London cab drivers have larger hippocampi compared to regular populations as a result of their intensive spatial mapping and multisensory experiences of the City.
If this spatial navigation is an essential element for healthy aging and mental activities, we should not allow GPS navigation to treat us as passive passengers rather than active explorers.
We need to continue to create proper mental maps of the surrounding environment, which is critical for our brain health.
The authors interestingly suggest that while advances in technology have many benefits, any pioneer should be mindful that technology can influence the brain and ultimately the goal should be to create and design technology in ways that complement the brain and enhance opportunity to interact and engage with the real world around us.
Mental maps arise from direct experience.
When new environments are explored, the brain constantly maps out the surroundings.
All senses are used to learn and remember surroundings, not just vision.
In particular, evolution rewarded auditory navigation:
As hunters gatherer we listen to the environment and move towards sounds, allowing us to avoid predators, trap prey and locate water sources.
Our brains ultimately generate detailed maps of our environment through active exploration.
How is this sense perceived today? Strolling along a modern city waterfront, we might hear the petulant squawks of seagulls fighting over a bread crust or the low throaty notes of approaching ships in the fog. These are known as auditory beacons.
However, as civilisation expanded and grew, it became more difficult to navigate over long distances only through sensory experiences and memory.
It is not possible to sail to another continent on senses alone, so maps were a revolution for humanity.
Rudimentary maps were created as early as 16,500 B.C. when people drew paintings on the walls of caves showing stars or landscape features.
These were later carved into wood or rocks so they could be carried whilst travelling but the ancient Greeks and early Chinese dynasties first produced paper maps.
Physical maps became a revolution.
They contained enormous amounts of information about the surrounding environment on a simple piece of paper, but using them successfully required both the correct placement of oneself within the map and the correct heading.
The challenge is that physical maps can be very abstract and require many other techniques to operate such as the ability to determine where in the map one is located.
However, this ability to be a successful navigator is not in everyone’s grasp.
Commercial airplanes used to have an expert navigator on board.
Satellite enabled GPS is revolutionary for navigation and now everyone has their own personal navigator.
It provides the ability to go places spontaneously with little need for planning or additional people to navigate.
The authors argue we have become passive passengers aboard the GPS.
Numerous experiments have shown that this egocentric navigation also reduces spatial awareness and mental mapping when compared to more traditional forms of navigation like paper maps.
A recent paper by Aaron Ben-Elia compared paper maps to Google Maps and found that app users significantly underperformed on traditional memory map tasks such as pointing or landmark recognition.
The challenge now is to create alternative forms of GPS navigation that will remain easy enough for the general public but also enable allocentric navigation, thus be more likely to improve spatial awareness.
The authors suggest that appropriately designed audio beacons can offer an alternative, which fosters a much more active form of egocentric navigation.
Instead of guiding users to turn right and turn left on their way to a desired destination, they suggest that locations can be converted to a distinctive auditory beacon via ear buds or headphones.
This auditory navigation application known as Soundscape has an effect that resembles a church bell or minaret where peals or calls to prayer can be heard at a great distance.
Audio beacons could be created for any chosen destination and without sound decay so they can be heard from as far away as needed.
With an audio beacon at the destination, a pharmacy two miles away can produce a sound that we can hear through our phone.
Then one simply moves towards it, but unlike turn by turn directions, spatial awareness can be built through active and direct exploration of the environment along the way.
It also shows that this type of sensory navigation through audio beacons outperforms turn by turn navigation in the creation of mental maps.
They also believe that people take a more active role in their navigation in this situation.
They have created an experience called Soundscape, which is an app on a mobile phone.
The Soundscape team originally designed the app as an experimental tool to enable blind and low vision populations to a potentially safer, more robust and accessible navigation than turn by turn options.
It has in fact enabled over 500,000 walks in seven countries.
They suggest that GPS navigation based on auditory beacons offers a compelling example of a sensory augmentation that helps humans connect more deeply with reality.
Perhaps instead of evolving into a new species of turn by turn zombies they say, we can engage more deeply with humanity, our local environment and life itself.
Dr Paul Ettlinger
BM, DRCOG, FRCGP, FRIPH, DOccMed