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Turn Off GPS — and Turn On Your Brain


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Try this today
  • Escape your rut. Without immediately consulting a map or GPS, see if you can reach a familiar destination using new streets and shortcuts. Watch for opportunities to take roads less traveled as you go about your daily routines. 
  • Draw a map. Sketch a bird’s-eye view of your neighborhood, with major streets, buildings and other landmarks. If you have trouble completing the picture, take a walk or leisurely drive to soak in the details and try again.
  • Try a paper map. The next time you go somewhere new, use a paper or digital map to plan a route without assistance from GPS. After you take the drive or walk, see if you can draw your route from memory. One small study in the United Kingdom found that drivers who used maps drew more accurate, detailed routes than those who used GPS. 
  • Get back on your own. Try going somewhere new with a map, and then see if you can find your way back without it. Knowing you are going to test yourself should help you pay closer attention to landmarks and distances as you travel. 
  • Use environmental clues. Navigate a new city or park using human clues (but keep your phone in your pocket as a backup). To find a nice lunch spot, for example, follow the crowds streaming out of office buildings at midday. To keep yourself oriented, look toward the sky and note the direction the clouds are moving: Barring a dramatic change in wind direction, they are likely to keep moving that way and can help you keep your bearings, according to Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator: The Rediscovered Art of Letting Nature Be Your Guide.

The GPS feature on our phones is great for guiding us to new places. It might not be so good for our brains. When we rely on turn-by-turn directions, we often pay less attention to our surroundings, which means we’re less likely to remember a route, even to get back home. We also make less use of our hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s important for forming memories.

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