If your vehicle is equipped with a GPS, chances are good it rescued you in a driving pickle once or twice. GPS devices can not only help us get to unfamiliar locations, it can also help us steer clear of unsafe neighborhoods and dangerous road conditions. With the calm and clear voice of GPS advising us how to get around in a new city, we will typically avoid going the wrong way and ending up on a dirt road that leads to nowhere.

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A Compact Replacement for Bulky Maps

One of the most positive ways that GPS has impacted the way we drive is by eliminating the need for huge foldout maps. If you have ever tried to figure out how to get from point A to point B by unfolding a map the size the entire front windshield and squinting at the tiny dotted road lines and color coded highways, you know how challenging this can be. Even if you could determine which road to take, you then had the task of re-folding the map and somehow fitting it back into your glove box. In addition to the frustration, not everyone is blessed with an inherent ability to understand north versus south, which means the map might as well be printed in hieroglyphics.

For these folks, a GPS device is worth its weight in gold. By simply programming in where they are and where they want to go, the compact unit will do all of the directional thinking for them.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Many of us have become so dependent on our GPS devices, we have lost our natural ability to navigate. Those slick and shiny little units are essentially messing with something our brains are supposed to do. When we rely on our GPS to get us to where we need to go, we notice and remember less about our surroundings, which negatively impacts our spatial memories. Interestingly, the ability for GPS to expertly get us to where we are going also prevents us from learning how to think on the fly and learn from our mistakes.

If you miss a turn and have to figure out on your own how to get back on the right road, you will be a more engaged driver who is getting to know the area, as opposed to one that is merely following directions like a robot. A Boston Globe article cites a study that found that people who use GPS to navigate are so clueless about where they are driving, they will typically not notice if the device is erroneously telling them to circle around the same area multiple times.

How to Relearn Spatial Skills

In order to reduce dependence on your GPS and boost your spatial memory and ability to find your way around, it’s time to cut back on your dependence on the GPS. Take the unit out of your car for at least a few days each week and learn the layout of your city on your own terms. In order to refresh your memory about the rules of the road, visit a website like DrivingTests.org.

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Sometimes you might come up with a more efficient way to get to work than what GPS is advising; as City Lab notes, the devices are not infallible and they tend to select the most common way to go, which can lead to plenty of wasted time stuck in traffic. Use your own skills and a paper or online map to see if you can come up with another route that is faster.

~ David