Are Google Maps and GPS Bad for Our Brains?


Despite their undeniable usefulness, the burgeoning popularity of internet search engines, computer maps, and global positioning system devices has been criticized for everything from lowering reading skills and diminishing spatial literacy to crippling our navigational skills and increasing our long-term risk of dementia (see the Washington Post article by Nicholas Carr). Are such responses simply a form of Luddism in this brave new world of digital devices?

“Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains” (alternatively, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?”) is a magazine article by technology writer Nicholas G. Carr highly critical of the Internet’s effect on cognition. It was published in the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic magazine as a six-page cover story. Carr’s main argument is that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. Despite the title, the article is not specifically targeted at Google, but more at the cognitive impact of the Internet and World Wide Web. Carr expanded his argument in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, a book published by W. W. Norton in June 2010 (Wikipedia: Is Google Making Us Stupid?).

On another level, some critics see Google as an Orwellian threat to our freedom of choice and privacy: “Although they [Google] are doing a great job, full of passion and love for software, they are not hiding the extreme desire to control all of us. They are constantly buying new products and expanding in new areas. What I am saying is that they are killing the market, there is no competition. If you want to build a product and if Google decides to compete with you, your service will be dead in less than a year (if you are not Facebook). Further, they are collecting a huge amount of data from the plus button and from our daily queries on the service. Are they using their own motto against themselves? (‘Don’t Be Evil’)” (source).

Internet mapping services and GPS navigation systems are extraordinarily helpful: “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. 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. 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” (source).

Henry Grabar, writing for Citylab.com, comments: “Spatial thinking helps us structure, integrate, and recall ideas. It’s less an independent field of study than a foundational skill; a 2006 report from the National Research Council called spatial literacy the ‘missing link’ in the K-12 curriculum at large. Navigating is among the greatest incubators of that ability. A sophisticated internal map, as a famous study of London cab drivers showed, is tied to greater development in the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for spatial memory. In another study, participants with stronger hippocampus development tended to navigate with complex cognitive maps, while those with less developed spatial memory memorized turn-by-turn directions” (source). But could that mean that Carr is right, that our hippocampi will shrink if we rely on GPS instead of mental and paper maps, and that such shrinkage could even lead to dementia, as suggested in his Washington Post article?

Probably not. “As printing expanded the industry, cartographers deployed their talents in hundreds of new ways. Of equal importance, however, was the revolution in access. Before 1800, few people would have seen a map of their city or town. By the middle of the century, such objects were commonplace. By the early 20th century, they were distributed for free at gas stations. That development changed the way our ancestors thought about space. It certainly enhanced their understanding of the world. Something similar may be happening today. While cartophiles are alternately entranced and worried by the technological progress within maps, the more significant change may be in our collective exposure to geographic information. We no longer have to ‘read’ maps as we once did. But it seems nearly certain that we spend more time looking at them. For every cognitive scientist watching connectivity diminish our talents of perception, cognition, and problem-solving, there are many more kids exploring the earth from their laptops. ‘I think the parallel with the 19th century actually says the addition of the digital dynamic is going to expand context, make people more geographically literate, says David Rumsey, whose extensive map collection testifies to the cartographic trends of past generations. ‘I don’t think it leads to a loss of spatial consciousness—I think it’s exactly the opposite’” (citylab.com, op. cit.).

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Geography grad student Mike Alonzo for drawing out attention to the citylab.com article. As Mike put it, “This article is a little all over the place, but there’s some good stuff in here.”

Image 1 for article titled "Are Google Maps and GPS Bad for Our Brains?"
Cover page in The Atlantic issue “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Wikipedia: Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

Image 2 for article titled "Are Google Maps and GPS Bad for Our Brains?"
Graphic from endthelie.com which considers Google to be part of “the growing tide of Big Brother technology in the United States.” Read more at http://endthelie.com/2012/03/23/google-awarded-patent-for-tailored-advertising-based-on-spying-on-sound-and-environment/#p0aXHFwPrMOVgJ40.99

Image 3 for article titled "Are Google Maps and GPS Bad for Our Brains?"
Cartoon by Pirillo and Fitz, from Michael Gaigg: Uber UII/UX Design )