Are Google Maps and GPS bad for our brains?

By Nicholas Carr
Sunday, June 6, 2010; B03

Just before dawn on the morning of Jan. 19, 2009, a Los Angeles woman named Lauren Rosenberg was hit by a car while crossing a four-lane highway in Park City, Utah. Last month, more than a year after the accident, she filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the route for her walk had been suggested by Google Maps. She's asking for more than $100,000 in damages, in part to cover the hefty medical bills she says she incurred.

Google, Rosenberg's lawyer said in explaining the suit, bears some responsibility for her injuries. He argued that Google Maps provided walking directions, which Rosenberg downloaded to her BlackBerry, that sent her down a busy road without sidewalks or streetlights, putting her in harm's way.

Blaming Google seems like a stretch. Using any kind of map requires caution, and on its site the company warns people about the dangers inherent in walking near traffic (though it's not clear whether the warning appeared on Rosenberg's BlackBerry). Google, a multibillion-dollar company, is a big target, and Rosenberg's suit may prove frivolous.

But her experience should nevertheless give us pause. It highlights a remarkable shift in the way people get around these days. We may not all be wandering across highways in the dark, but most of us have become dependent on computer-generated maps of one sort or another. I know that when I'm in my car, I rarely give much thought anymore to where I am or what route I'm taking. I just turn on the GPS and follow the instructions.

The trust we place in computerized directions can, as Rosenberg discovered, have unintended and unpleasant consequences.

Internet mapping services and GPS navigation systems are extraordinarily useful. They guide us to distant and out-of-the-way places that were once a hassle to find. They quickly get us back on course when we take a wrong turn. Listening to instructions from a GPS device certainly beats wrangling with a big paper map while trying to steer a car -- something I confess to having done all too often in the past.

In extreme situations, GPS units can even be lifesavers. Just ask anyone who's been lost in the wilderness during a hiking or camping trip. When you have a GPS device in your pack, you always know the way back to civilization.

But even though our gadgets seem magical, they don't know everything. As most of us have discovered, navigation systems can give bad advice as well as good. You may not get hit by a car, but you could find yourself driving in circles or stuck at a construction site or marooned in a dodgy part of town.

Because the software programs that generate maps tend to recommend routes based on simple calculations of speed and distance, they can end up promoting convoluted and dangerous traffic patterns. Sometimes, for instance, they divert drivers from highways and send them through residential neighborhoods or past schools.

A couple of years ago, a quiet hamlet in southwestern England called Barrow Gurney found itself suddenly overrun by cars and trucks. A GPS system had calculated that the route through town could provide a time-saving shortcut between highways, and drivers robotically followed the resulting directions. The local government lobbied, fruitlessly, to have the town erased from computer maps.

GPS units have also been implicated in thousands of accidents. Last month, a New Jersey driver, dutifully following GPS commands, made an illegal left turn and caused a four-car pileup. Too often when we turn on our navigation systems, we turn off our common sense and stop paying attention to where we're headed.

More ominously still, there are signs that our growing reliance on automated GPS directions could end up altering the circuitry in our brains.

A famous study of London taxi drivers, conducted in the late 1990s, found that an area of the cabbies' hippocampi was much larger than normal. The hippocampus is thought to be the place where we store maps of our surroundings. It plays a crucial role in our ability to keep track of where we are and to get from one place to another. As the taxi drivers built their mental maps of London's incredibly complex road network, the study indicated, their hippocampi expanded, and their navigational skills strengthened.

Eleanor Maguire, the neuroscientist who led the study, fears that if the cabbies adopt satellite navigation, their hippocampi will shrink, and they'll lose much of their remarkable navigational sense. "We very much hope they don't start using it," she told a reporter for Britain's Independent newspaper.

All of us who rely heavily on computer maps and GPS devices are exercising our innate navigational skills less frequently and less intensively. As a result, those skills are probably decaying. And if our kids rely on computer maps from a young age, they may never establish those skills in the first place. When we upgraded from atlases to gizmos, we made our lives easier. But we lost something, too.

Just like the cabbies, we may be fated to experience a dwindling in the size and functionality of the part of the hippocampus devoted to representing space. As that happens, we'll begin to lose touch with the physical world that surrounds us. And in turn, we'll become even more dependent on our computers to shepherd us around. We'll turn into modern-day Hansels and Gretels, lost without our digital trail of crumbs.

But here's the really scary part. In addition to stockpiling mental maps, the hippocampus plays an essential role in creating and storing memories. Some studies have found, in fact, that a shrinking hippocampus is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.

VĂ©ronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, has done extensive research demonstrating the connection between the size of the hippocampus and the degree to which we employ our navigational skills. She worries that, should our hippocampi begin to atrophy from a lack of use in navigation, the result could be a loss of memory and a growing long-term risk of dementia.

"Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus," she said in an interview with journalist Alex Hutchinson last year. "In the next twenty years, I think we're going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier."

That's still speculation. Bohbot's fear may well turn out to be groundless. But it's something to keep in mind the next time that pleasant, computer-generated voice tells you to take a left.

Nicholas Carr is the author of the new book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains."

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