Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation devices and applications have become ubiquitous over the last decade. However, it is unclear whether using GPS affects our own internal navigation system, or spatial memory, which critically relies on the hippocampus.
We assessed the lifetime GPS experience of 50 regular drivers as well as various facets of spatial memory, including spatial memory strategy use, cognitive mapping, and landmark encoding using virtual navigation tasks. We first present cross-sectional results that show that people with greater lifetime GPS experience have worse spatial memory during self-guided navigation, i.e. when they are required to navigate without GPS.
In a follow-up session, 13 participants were retested three years after initial testing. Although the longitudinal sample was small, we observed an important effect of GPS use over time, whereby greater GPS use since initial testing was associated with a steeper decline in hippocampal-dependent spatial memory. Importantly, we found that those who used GPS more did not do so because they felt they had a poor sense of direction, suggesting that extensive GPS use led to a decline in spatial memory rather than the other way around. These findings are significant in the context of society’s increasing reliance on GPS.