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opinion | Howard Axelrod

How the GPS defeated the great hippocampus

Belle Mellor for the Boston Globe

This past Thanksgiving, my brother and sister-in-law got into a fight about the GPS. My brother wanted to use it on the drive from Goshen, N.Y., into Manhattan. My sister-in-law didn’t.

“Would just you turn it on?” he said.

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“Why don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you. But this is what a GPS is for. It’s why we got it. This is Martha’s purpose.”

My sister-in-law fell quiet. In the backseat, I was pretending not to exist. My brother’s nickname for his wife, even before she was his wife, was Map-girl. She has always had an uncanny memory for street names, for unlikely turns, for distances. She almost never gets lost, even in cities that are new to her. And Manhattan wasn’t new to her. But now they had this brand new GPS. My brother liked it, called it by name. Martha. This was Martha’s purpose.

But what was her purpose, I could almost hear my sister-in-law wondering. What about Map-girl?

And from the backseat, I started wondering about it, too. What about the parts of our brains that have evolved to help us find our way? And what about the corresponding part of our psyches? Is there a difference between consulting a map, or relying on the map you’ve made in your mind, and simply following a series of directions?

For the brain, it turns out, there is. The key is cognitive mapping — forming a picture in your mind of the spatial layout of a place. Neuroscientists have found that when you picture how to find your way — whether you start from an old-fashioned map or the memory of your previous trips and the internal map you formed from them — you rely on a part of the brain called the hippocampus. A famous study published in 2000 of London taxi drivers revealed that the drivers had more gray matter in the posterior hippocampus than the average Londoner. From years of navigating London’s labyrinthine streets, their brains had changed. As the hippocampus did more cognitive mapping, it became bigger. Inside the brains of the taxi drivers, the hippocampus developed like the quadriceps of a runner — enhanced from regular workouts and ready to carry a heavier load.

Of course, a fit hippocampus isn’t the easiest thing to show off at the beach. But, sadly, atrophy of the hippocampus might be. Several studies have linked such atrophy to increased risk for a range of psychiatric disorders, especially dementia. Whether relying on GPS year after year might contribute to that degree of atrophy isn’t clear, but studies have shown that GPS users are more likely to suffer from problems with memory and spatial orientation. Veronique Bobhot, a McGill University neuroscientist, has said, “We can only draw an inference. But there’s a logical conclusion that people could increase their risk of atrophy if they stop paying attention to where they are and where they go.”

That’s the brain’s part of the story, but there’s also the larger question of the psyche. The question of what our functions are as human beings — the question of how we relate to the world around us and to each other.

What about my purpose?

I imagined Dante in the dark wood with a GPS. No more trip into the Underworld, no soul-searching (literal or metaphorical) — and so, ultimately, no redemptive trip into Paradise. I imagined Odysseus with a GPS on the wine-dark sea. No need to outwit Polyphemus or Circe, no questions of duty or honor — and so, ultimately, no heartbreaking homecoming in Ithaka. Without getting lost, they would have no stories. Which doesn’t just mean no adventures, but no being forced into the inner searching that often comes with outward searching. They would have no physical possibility for a change of vantage point, for insight.

Not that I wanted to get lost in New Jersey and suddenly find myself in the cave of a Cyclops. I was meeting two friends on the lower West Side for brunch, which didn’t leave much time for wrong turns. Besides, we were making good time. Martha knew her way. My brother and his wife were talking again quietly. And, frankly, I was relieved to know I wouldn’t be late.

But as the automated voice zipped us by the strip malls on the Palisades, I couldn’t help feeling diminished, like we were bad human beings. Not in the moral sense, but bad human beings in the sense of being bad animals. Attention had become decorative rather than essential. There was no need for us to consider anything outside the window. We’d been freed up for more important activities. Which, from the conversation in the front seat, was apparently the highway version of window-shopping — considering what we might order online once we were back in our respective homes. The land was just a series of corridors we were passing through, linking us from one particular destination to another, without forcing us to confront all that was outside those corridors, all that connected them.

We crossed over the George Washington Bridge and eased into Manhattan. We found a parking space near Times Square. Martha had done her job — not one wrong turn, estimated arrival time off by only two minutes. No dark woods. No Cyclops. Only a faint unease — a foreboding that we were caught in a modern myth, one for which we don’t yet have the words.

Howard Axelrod is a writer living in Boston. He recently completed a memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” about his two years in solitude in northern Vermont.
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