The timing on this could not have been better. Earlier this week Rand McNally announced that the 2020 edition of its legendary Motor Carriers' Road Atlas was available. A couple of days later, I came across an opinion piece in the Washington Post postulating that driving with GPS might be ruining our brains. Back when I was driving for a living, GPS wasn't even a twinkle in Rand McNally's eye — or anyone else's for that matter.
I managed to more or less successfully navigate some 2 million miles over my 20 years on the road using a stack of the paper -- and later laminated -- versions of the venerable atlas. Yeah, I found myself off-course a few times, but I never drove off a pier or through the front window of a jewelry store at "her" behest.
And truth be told, more than a few hundred thousand of those miles we over familiar ground. I memorized the routes and left the atlas unopened underneath the passenger seat. Which speaks directly to the point in the WaPo commentary. The author, one M.R. O'Connor, was reporting on a study that found neuroscientists can now see brain behavior changes in people that rely on turn-by-turn directions provided by their GPS units.
According to the scientists that did the research, "when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, the brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink."
Use it or lose it, right?
The part of the brain they refer to is called the hippocampus, and it's crucial to many aspects of daily life. According to O'Connor, "It allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It also allows us to recall events from the past, what is known as episodic memory. And, remarkably, it is the part of the brain that neuroscientists believe gives us the ability to imagine ourselves in the future.
"Meanwhile, atrophy in that part of the brain is linked to devastating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease," she notes in her commentary.
O'Connor goes on to explain the relationship between the physical size of the hippocampus and the potential for cognitive decline in later years. She suggests that adults with a history of exercising that part of the brain on tasks like navigating and using memory, coupled with visual stimuli to help form a picture of a route or a trip, have greater hippocampal volume, which seems to be a protector against the onset of dementia. Really.
"If we are paying attention to our environment, we are stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease," O'connor quotes neuroscientist, Véronique Bohbot. "When we get lost, it activates the hippocampus, it gets us completely out of the habit mode. Getting lost is good!"
Some of Bohbot's research that has shown that "older people who use spatial memory strategies in their everyday lives may have increased gray matter in the hippocampus and enhance their probability of healthy and successful aging."
That's pretty amazing when you think about it. The brain is often likened to a muscle, and there's plenty of evidence that suggests using that "muscle" keeps it fit and tuned for all sorts of tasks.
There was a study done several years ago involving taxi drivers in the city of London, England. It revealed those drivers have greater gray-matter volume in the hippocampus because they have memorized the city’s streets.
Back in my day, remember, I more or less retired from driving in 1998, getting across the country was easy. It was the local road and smaller towns that presented difficulties. The standard routine was to call the customer and get directions off of a major highway, and hope the person you were talking with differentiated between the way they drove to work and the route trucks were supposed to take. There are hundreds of stories of driver dutifully following directions only to find a low bridge or a weight restriction, or worse, either of the above and a local cop staking out the route. Fines for that in places like Pennsylvania have been known to run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
And today's GPS systems do not guarantee success in this matter.
It was interesting how quickly we learned those routes, especially for repeat customers. Turn right at the red barn, turn left at the T-intersection and you're there. It was easy until somebody painted the barn.
I have noticed, with GPS, that after arriving at a destination, I usually have no recollection of how I got there. Following the prompts become automatic, and since you don't really need to remember your way out -- like leaving a mental trail of breadcrumbs through the forest -- I don't take notice of landmarks of directions. My hippocampus must be withering on the vine.
On Father's Day just past, I went on a canoe trip with my daughter and her husband. We agreed to meet at the place since we were coming in from different directions. She arrived sheepishly 20 minutes late because she followed her GPS, which she had set sometime earlier to avoid highways. I remembered how to get there from 7 or 8 years ago (she was with me then too, but seated in the backseat and not driving she likely wouldn't have remembered the route anyway). She never leaves home without it and often uses it on routes she drives all the time.
Sometimes she'll ask for a recommendation for a place to stop for lunch on a trip, which I supply from memory, and she'll say she has never seen it before, or has no notion of where it is along the route -- beginning, middle or end.
I always joke that GPS can be extremely useful if you already know where you're going, sort of like a confirmation of the correct route. But my GPS (my phone, actually; I don't own a stand-alone GPS) is often off the mark on the routing.
I'd prefer to visually review the route before pressing the go button but it's quite difficult on those small screens. While an atlas page is much better in that regard, doing such a review while underway can make safety people apoplectic.
Since Rand McNally is still selling the Atlas', I presume there are more than a few drivers who feel the same way I do. GPS has a place, but becoming too reliant on that technology can apparently have some mental health consequences — different mental health consequences than those we experience staring down a low bridge or a weight-restriction sign with a trooper in between.