VOX POPULI: the GPS functions of our devices have rusted the compass of the mind

I’ve recently become completely dependent on a car navigation system whenever I’m out of town on a reporting assignment and need to drive.

“Turn right 300 meters further.” “Turn left at the next light.”

But come to think of it, I also religiously follow such instructions on my smartphone even when I’m walking.

“Addiction to GPS devices tends to cause your awareness to focus on the front, back, left and right, but it does little to activate your power to process directions in terms of from north, south, east and west,” said Toru Ishikawa, 51, a spatial cognition expert and professor at Toyo University.

I feel like my internal compass has rusted after years of GPS and smartphone use.

The hippocampus in the brain, which regulates memory, is the domain of so-called place cells believed to act collectively as a cognitive representation of a specific location in space, known as a cognitive map.

“The accuracy of the cognitive map varies widely from person to person,” Ishikawa said. “Some people can only ‘draw’ the least reliable map, while others can draw it perfectly.”

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to two scientists who discovered place cells. Through experiments on rats, they confirmed the presence of brain cells that activate when rats pass through a specific location.

Humans are also said to have cells that function in a similar way.

We already had such a complex “device” embedded in our brains long before smartphones existed. Wow.

I took a sense of direction test that the researchers developed. There were 15 questions in all, including: “Does giving someone instructions make you feel inadequate?” and “Do you immediately get lost in a new place?”

My score was a whopping 27 points below the world average. I was always aware of my poor sense of direction, but the test result still irritated me a bit.

Anyway, I’m no longer comfortable without a GPS device and without a smartphone.

To recover even a little of my lost sense of direction, I might need to stand still every now and then and gaze at familiar mountains and the North Star in the sky.

–The Asahi Shimbun, June 30

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that covers a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran writers from Asahi Shimbun, the column offers helpful perspectives and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.