Your Brain on GPS


Small fry on bottle detail. Can’t get this experience from screen time.

Isn’t GPS wonderful? In the long run, the answer is probably no. Using GPS regularly makes parts of your brain atrophy.
Not all that long ago I was waxing eloquent (or frothing at the mouth – take your pick) about how technology affects your ability to perform certain tasks. Well, it seems there are some other folks out there who have similar concerns. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that regulates emotions. It is associated with memory (especially long-term memory) and is important for spatial navigation – your ability to move around in your environment.
Neuroscientists have found that using GPS can cause atrophy in the hippocampus. Apparently that’s because you have no need to create and remember your own routes. You have no need to make decisions. You don’t have to pay attention to your surroundings. It’s like the difference between being the driver or the passenger in a vehicle. Ever been some place unfamiliar? Could you find your way back? Odds are, your chances are better if you were the driver.

Driving the four-wheeler is a rite of passage for a ranch kid (the big one has now graduated to the backhoe).

The hippocampus needs experience to function properly. Taxi drivers in London had more volume in that part of the brain because they had memorized the streets and landmarks while driving over them day after day. Other research shows that no matter how old you are, if you use the hippocampus for navigation on a regular basis, you’ll have more volume in that area. Atrophy in that area of the brain, however, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I’m willing to bet that it’s not just GPS. Using any kind of technology on a regular basis is probably affecting our brains in a lot of negative ways. And in kids, whose brains are still developing, those effects are likely to have serious consequences for all of us. Heavy social media use, for example, has been linked to a more than tripled increase in teenage depression. And make no mistake, technology is actually rewiring our kids’ brains as well as our own.

Hands-on with the old stallion; brain, body and emotions engaged.

So what does this have to do with ranching or farming? Practicing navigation – even if it’s just going from the house to the north forty – makes you engage with and become attuned to the natural world. If you are engaged with nature, you notice things like fewer birds and amphibians in your world. You become more sensitive to small changes in the way plants grow. You can glance at a cow and see that it doesn’t feel well. It’s the complete opposite of the way too many people these days spend their time fixated on a tiny screen. When you are not engaged with nature, you don’t even notice how the world is changing.

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