Opinion | Ditch the GPS. It’s ruining your brain. - WP

Interesting that this article showed up today:

…What isn’t known is the effect of GPS use on hippocampal function when employed daily over long periods of time. Javadi said the conclusions he draws from recent studies is that “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.”

How people navigate naturally changes with age. Navigation aptitude appears to peak around age 19, and after that, most people slowly stop using spatial memory strategies to find their way, relying on habit instead. But neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot has found that using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus at any age. She thinks that interventions focused on improving spatial memory by exercising the hippocampus — paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment — might help offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.

“If we are paying attention to our environment, we are stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease,” Bohbot told me in an email. “When we get lost, it activates the hippocampus, it gets us completely out of the habit mode. Getting lost is good!” Done safely, getting lost could be a good thing.

Saturated with devices, children today might grow up to see navigation from memory or a paper map as anachronistic as rote memorization or typewriting. But for them especially, independent navigation and the freedom to explore are vital to acquiring spatial knowledge that may improve hippocampal function. Turning off the GPS and teaching them navigational skills could have enormous cognitive benefits later in life.

There are other compelling reasons outside of neuroscience to consider forgoing the GPS.

Over the past four years, I’ve spoken with master navigators from different cultures who showed me that practicing navigation is a powerful form of engagement with the environment that can inspire a greater sense of stewardship. Finding our way on our own — using perception, empirical observation and problem-solving skills — forces us to attune ourselves to the world. And by turning our attention to the physical landscape that sustains and connects us, we can nourish “topophilia,” a sense of attachment and love for place. You’ll never get that from waiting for a satellite to tell you how to find a shortcut.


Good topic, a lot here. The book The Lost Art of Finding Our Way which was an OK book has the story of two young women who got lost in the fog while kayaking.

This is from one of the Amazon reviews.

At the beginning of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Harvard University Press), physicist

John Edward Huth tells how there is still danger out there. He once found himself beset in fog, kayaking off Cape Cod. It had happened before, and this time, before setting out, he had noted the waves, wind, and more. He was able to use these clues to get home even in the fog, but two other kayakers were in the same fog and were not so lucky, and he subsequently read about their disappearance in the newspaper. They didn’t have his ability to read the signs, and when the fog descended, they probably were completely lost and paddled seawards.

As far as driving in an unfamiliar city, the memory of trying to read a map while driving and sometimes having to pull over to get a better look makes me grateful to have GPS directions although situational awareness still comes into play.
As a navigator, the missus is a liability more than a help.


I’d argue that to a degree the same case can be made against celestial as against GPS. Reducing sights onto a chart is shifting navigation into the more abstract realm. Losing GPS requires a wider scope of problem solving, an accurate fix is not always needed in every case.

Consider the merchant way vs the Navy way. The new third mate buries his/her head into the APRA/ECDIS. In contrast the fresh Ensign is given the conn using visual only, the electronic aids are used by the ratings for the most part.

Also consider what it takes (or what sense of the real world is lacking) to sail a ship into the eye wall of a hurricane.

Or the idea that deep-sea unlimited masters are better seaman then Alaksan fisherman.

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This is part of the reason why I don’t have a smartphone. Navigation is such a complex, multi faceted subject that it’s a shame to let it pass us by. Consider the differences and similarities between the following scenarios:

  • Navigating visually “by feel” in coastal waters, keeping a mental note of where you are while constantly scanning for landmarks.
  • Navigating in-shore by radar, using the same basic principles as above.
  • Navigating by plotting radar fixes or visual bearings on a chart.
  • Navigating “by feel” at night, so-called sector navigation.
  • Navigating by deduced reckoning.
  • Navigating on inland waterways, essentially a single dimensional exercise.
  • Navigating on foot in a strange city, working with a short list of street signs to look out for.
  • Navigating by road in a strange land, keeping a mental short list of street signs to look out for.
  • Navigating in the winter mountains on skis, using mostly topography and bearings.
  • Navigating in competitive orienteering, rapidly integrating landmarks, topography and ded reckoning.

Now consider that all of these skill sets are made redundant by a stream of GPS positions. It’s a shame. In danger of sounding like a bitter old fart, I fear what is happening to the youth of today.

When navigating at sea, I have no real alternative to using a GPS, seeing as not using an available means of positioning would be outright irresponsible. I do however actively seek out opportunities to navigate by traditional means, and relish in the challenge. Those reaching for their smartphones at every opportunity can’t possibly understand what they’re missing out on.


Nowadays it is not uncommon that a car driver, who lost his navigation system due to system error, pulls into a gas station along the high way to ask where he is. Panic, where am I? No geographical awareness. They put their whole trust in the navigation system, without it they have not the slightest idea where they are and which way to go to reach their destination. Gas stations these day have now an ample supply of equipment on the shelves for these cases.

I had and still have a map in my head with the main routes. I always carried with me a simple road map but seldomly I had to use it. More in case I had to find an alternate route for traffic reasons.


Street plan of the city of 's-Hertogenbosch.

To find an address I used the Shell city street plan book with 227 street plans of the mayor Dutch cities. That art got lost when the navigation systems came in use. That part of the brain shriveled or was never developed. There was simply no need for it. A few months ago I showed our way of paper navigation to my grand children, they just could not believe it, so primitive…

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Overall situational awareness is a necessity no matter what navigation methods are used. Many years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, a Canadian couple in a van pulled off the freeway in South Central, the “wrong” neighborhood. They were found shot to death with the overhead light on and their map blood soaked. Welcome to LA.

That’s right. I have an obligation to the owners to get the ship from point A to Point B. The size of the mate’s hippocampus is his own concern, not mine.


It appears from this article that radio sailing is very good for the old hippocampus. Nothing like setting up for an approach to a windward mark in the middle of a pack of boats while observing the action from a distance and and a low angle. Gets “ze liddle grey zells” (my dear 'Astings) pumping away for sure :smile:



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Radio as in R/C model yachts?




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Don’t they have POV cameras yet? Not to mention AutoRace™** with GPS, AIS, five-axis gyro and Lidar? How quaint… :wink:

**Dunno if there’s a module that will throw some bent screws (Pop rivets? bits of carbon roving?) into your opponent’s mainsail as he crowds you, but I’m sure it will come.

POV cameras are used sparingly by experiment-minded skippers and there is a considerable debate in several classes as to whether they should be legal.



My vote would be to have a special experimental class for them, try it out for a year or two and then decide. Might need a handicap adjustment which should become clear after a while.

That’s the way radio sailing started in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There was a “DX” class which was “anything with a radio in it.”

The current organization of radio sailing makes it difficult to repeat that for POV.



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I think it’s a choice to separate yourself from the environment or not.

As far as being able to use GPS at sea I see it as a big change not having to put that much time and energy into finding a position.

If you talk to people in STEM they will tell you the calculators and computers have freed them from time spend on tedious calculations and allows them to instead see the underlying patterns. Same is true at sea, Doing voyage plans, routing, weather, I feel like once I was blind but now I see. Something as simple as always knowing the exact speed.

A second point… The guys I used to work in the woods with used to subconsciously estimate direction and time from environmental clues. It was rare to see them use a watch or compass except for the occasional time they needed more precision.

It’s fractal both ways it seems to me, more tools or fewer. There is way more to the environment then we notice but our tools can either hide or reveal.

Teaching piloting requires actual practice. Otherwise terrestrial navigation is nothing more than a class to be passed. Bridge simulators focus mostly on collision avoidance while utilizing electronic navigation.

At Coastal Transportation the requirement since 2017 has been for prospective mates to accomplish ten days of piloting on the Salish Sea without recourse to GPS of any kind. Steaming through a maze of islands in a 65’ training boat using only paper charts and a magnetic compass, and a radar at night. This is one of few ways to train prospective mates to consider the big navigational picture, and drill the art of piloting into them so that in the unlikely even they lose the plotter they can still navigate safely.

To drive the training home, the trainees are also thrown in an open boat for six days and required to travel through a maze of waterways 130 miles to a final destination, without any navigational electronics, without a motor, and without a roof over their heads. When you can only row at two knots in channels where currents can reach 11 knots, either you learn piloting quick or you suffer for your mistakes.

If a trainee can’t do all this or doesn’t want to, they don’t become mates at the company. It’s the perfect way to separate those who can actually navigate from the beta-testers for the nav software which will replace them in a generation.

The company does a similar program to approve new mates for British Columbia pilotage waiver status.




The first time you posted this I thought it was a bit over the top but now I see the point. It’s very difficult to get most academy trained mates to break out of thinking of seamanship and navigation in narrow terms.

I read an article a while ago about a professional tracker. The guy they hire to find lost people or escaped convicts. He was describing his various techniques and he mentioned that a person walking on pavement couldn’t be tracked. Then he corrected himself, he said about tracking on pavement “leastwise I can’t”, which leaves the possibility it might doable, just that he doesn’t know how.

By the same token mariners should use care when talking about what can and cannot be done with regards to navigation. With regards to the lack of various tools such as a compass or sextant, better to think “I can’t do it” rather than “it can’t be done”.

Working with the fisherman in Alaska was very mind-bending experience for me given I already “knew” how to navigate before.


That reminds me of a novel I read once, I think it was Nevil Shute’s Trustee from the Toolroom or somesuch. It had a guy who navigated from LA to Hawaii by following the contrails, and for whatever reason, that bit sounded to me like a fictionalized anecdote. While utterly banal, it’s an interesting example of navigational methods that seem completely off the wall to your average mariner, but work just fine.

Traditional Polynesian navigation is a bit in the same genre, relying on water temperature, bird sightings and the like to position the craft in a space I can’t quite wrap my head around. There was another anecdote, I think it was related in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, of when some Polynesian seafarers were shown modern orthographic charts for the first time. They found them impressive, but utterly useless for navigation.

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