Over-reliance on satnavs slowing down our brains

Study of taxi drivers finds satnavs prevent growth of memory and navigation skills

The team of researchers found that London, with its complex network of small streets, was far more taxing on the hippocampus region of the brains of drivers than Manhattan in New York which is based on a grid layout. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The team of researchers found that London, with its complex network of small streets, was far more taxing on the hippocampus region of the brains of drivers than Manhattan in New York which is based on a grid layout. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

 

Drivers’ over-reliance on satnavs for directions is switching off parts of the brain and preventing people from developing their memory, navigation, planning and decision-making skills, according to a new study.

Using the labyrinth of London’s streets as the test for people’s brain usage when driving through urban areas, researchers at University College London (UCL) found that volunteers who navigated the streets from memory had greater spikes of activity in their brain than those who relied on satnavs for guidance.

UCL researchers focused on activity in the hippocampus – a brain region connected to memory and navigation – and the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain used for planning and decision-making.

Their study, which is published in the Nature Communications journal, noted spikes of brain activity when volunteers, who were navigating London’s streets manually, entered a new street. There was even more brain activity when the number of options of streets to choose from increased. However, researchers detected no additional activity in the brains of volunteers who used satnav instructions to navigate the streets.

Simulates future journeys

Drivers who are struggling to navigate the mass of streets in a city like London tend to place high demands on their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, according to the senior author of the report, Dr Hugo Spiers. He says the hippocampus region of the brain simulates future journeys while the prefrontal cortex helps plan which streets will get us to our destination.

“When we have technology telling us which way to go, however, these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network,” said Dr Spiers. “In that sense our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us.”

Previous UCL research into brain use when driving found that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers expand as they memorise the streets and landmarks of the city. Their latest study shows that drivers who rely on satnavs for direction are preventing their brains from expanding by learning the intricate network of London’s countless streets.

The team of researchers found that London, with its complex network of small streets, was far more taxing on the hippocampus region of the brains of drivers than Manhattan in New York which is based on a grid layout.

Memory systems

Dr Spiers says the next step in the research is to work with “tech companies, developers, and architects” to help design spaces that are “easier to navigate and increase wellbeing”.

“Our new findings allow us to look at the layout of a city or building and consider how the memory systems of the brain may likely react. For example, we could look at the layouts of care homes and hospitals to identify areas that might be particularly challenging for people with dementia and help to make them easier to navigate. Similarly, we could design new buildings that are dementia-friendly from the outset.”

Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi, who led the brain imaging analysis at UNCL, underlined the importance of understanding how different environments affect our brains, adding that sat navs “clearly have their uses and their limitations”.