My Sat-Nav is rotting my brain!

The new age of digital information technology may herald another evolutionary step in human development, and this will not necessarily be to our advantage.


When I was a boy, if I wanted to find out anything, I had to go to the library. That exercise in itself required a certain degree of planning. I had to take into consideration how long it would take me to walk there and what time I would have to leave to be back in time for tea. I would have to engage my conscious brain when crossing a busy road and consider the efficiency of taking a short cut across the farmer’s field – dangerous in summer because he was said to keep a large bull in there, and too muddy in winter.

Once at the library I would have to navigate the relevant shelves and gaze at the spines of dozens of books before finding the one I was looking for; then search for the relevant pages before sitting down to laboriously copy (with pen and paper) the information I needed. All this required a degree of forward planning as well as coordinated motor skills and feats of manual dexterity that exercised various different parts of my still developing brain.

When I grew older and started touring, to find the venue where I was to perform that evening, I would have to consult a map and plan a route, making advance decisions as to which roads to drive down while at the same time making a note of landmarks – a church, a major road junction – which would help me reach my destination. Occasionally I would be frustrated by an unexpected one-way street or road closure, which forced my brain, with its appalling sense of direction to work overtime. Sometimes, I would have to stop and ask for directions, which would have to be memorized and carefully stored in my short-term memory. Once I had been to a venue, finding it again, even months later, presented much less of a challenge because I had learned to remember the way.

But things are very different now. I rely on my Sat-Nav for almost everything. I used it the first time I went to do a show at the Civic Theatre in Rotherham. I have been there I think six times now, but would be pushed to find it without the dulcet tones of the lady who exists only in the memory of this marvelous brain-numbing machine.

There’s something else I have noticed too. I am forgetting information that I have looked up on Google, and it appears I’m not the only one!

When faced with a question, 36% of us will now automatically Google the answer without trying to work out what the answer might be themselves. This can’t be doing the brain’s connections, vital for establishing memory, any good. Worse, it appears that a quarter of people immediately forget the information they have just Googled.

A new study, which involved 6,000 international consumers aged 16 and over, was conducted by a digital security firm, Kaspersky Lab. The study has revealed that 36% of people admitted to Googling information before trying to recall the answer on their own, with the percentage rising to 40% for those over the age of 45.

It is possible of course that some Internet users may be unsure of the accuracy of their own memory. It could also be because the ease of information retrieval is making people lazy. It might be that perhaps some people may be impatient to get the correct answer as quickly as possible.

Whatever the reason, nearly 25% of the people surveyed in the study admitted they forget online answers they had Googled. The figure was higher for those over 45.

These findings could have important and far-reaching implications for our long-term memories. What if we were inadvertently breeding a generation of people who will not be able to function as efficiently as they could? Is people’s ability to think for themselves being eroded? Is gleaning our information from the Internet making people think they are smarter than they really are? What could be the long-term ramifications for our own future evolution? Having instant access to all the world’s knowledge is one thing, but letting this access reduce your own personal knowledge is another.

In a series of experiments, published by the American Psychological Association, one of the world’s leading authorities, researchers discovered that people who searched for information on the Internet believed they were more knowledgeable they really were. This was confirmed when the group competed against a control group about general knowledge subjects unrelated to the online searches.

But the result that surprised even the researchers was that participants had an inflated idea of their own knowledge even when they couldn’t find the information they were looking for! They also considered their brains to be more active than the volunteers in the control group.

However… 24% admitted they would forget the online answer once they had used it and this figure rose to 27% among over 45’s. 12% assumed the information would always be out there somewhere so there was little point in trying to memorise it!

Here’s the problem: our brains strengthen memories each time we recall them. Our brains also have the ability to discard and forget irrelevant information. Actively recalling information is a very efficient way to strengthen memories. Conversely, repeatedly looking up the same information on the Internet does not serve to create long-term memories.

In 2013, Harvard University researchers carried out a similar study. They were surprised to discover that participants were more likely to recall information if they believed it had been erased from the computer, whilst those who believed it was stored were more forgetful, even when explicitly requested to keep the information in mind.

In another experiment, students were asked to answer trivia questions with and then without using Google. They were then asked to rate their own intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who accessed the Internet for their answers had a significantly higher view of their own genius compared with individuals who correctly answered the questions having relied solely on their own knowledge.

The belief that the ability to use the Internet becomes part of your own cognitive intelligence is a dangerous misconception.

Another problem is that rather than sharing information, people are more likely to save it electronically. This stymies conversation and communication and thus future reliance on someone else’s memory. The problem is, we simply don’t have, and cannot have, the same kind of interaction with the Cloud as we do with our fellows. Further, there is a distinct possibility that important information will be excluded from our biological memories.

So what is the answer?

Remember what I said at the beginning about going to the library and driving to venues involving lots of other skills?

Writing things down, creating pictorial representations, or even reading them aloud helps us to remember because it involves more than just one activity. Memories of sights and sounds and smells, even of physical activity or environment, all conspire to reinforce one’s memories, especially of important information. Moreover, the action of talking to someone else about a problem or an answer makes memories more robust.

If you really want to remember something, it will help to either write it down, longhand (because it stimulates other areas of the brain at the same time) or say it out loud.

OK, people who talk to themselves may get funny looks, but you can always pretend you are talking to someone on your smart-phone. Better, try actually talking to someone on your smart-phone. It’s much more efficient and interesting than texting!

People who read out loud to themselves or to other people are more likely to remember information than those who read in silence.

Researchers at Montreal University recruited 44 undergraduates to read words on a screen. They were instructed to read the words in their heads; read silently while moving their lips; then read out loud while looking at the screen; then repeating the words aloud to somebody else.

The researchers found the best results came when participants addressed someone else. Talking aloud to themselves came a close second.

Professor Victor Boucher, who ran the experiments, says “articulating without making a sound creates a sensorimotor link that increases our ability to remember… if it is related to the functionality of speech, we remember even more.” 

So, increasing the number of skills involved in the exercise helps establish more robust memory. Just like going to library because the associated multi-sensory information combines to make the memory stronger. The more skills involved in creating the memory, the more likely it is to be retained.

This research is published in considerably more detail in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. 

Research published in Nature Communications shows that using Satnavs switches off the regions of the brain we use for navigation. But switching back to using real maps will activate them again – navigation exercises the brain in a way that simply does not happen when we are simply following instructions.

Previous research has found that taxi drivers who rely on learning the rat-runs and avenues of London by heart in ‘the Knowledge’ have enlarged brains. Researchers at University College London (UCL) led by Dr Hugo Spiers studied how 24 volunteers navigated a computer simulation of Soho in central London while their brains were being scanned. The two brain areas they were focusing on were the hippocampus, involved in memory, and the pre-frontal cortex.

The study found that when the volunteers tried to find their way using their own brain instead of a satnav, there were ‘spikes’ of activity in both areas when the volunteers entered new streets. This activity increased even further when faced with a complex maze of streets. In contrast, when the volunteers followed instructions – a situation comparable to following a satnav or phone app – the brain showed no additional activity.

Entering a complex junction, for example where several streets meet, would enhance activity in the hippocampus. Conversely, a dead-end would drive down its activity. So, navigating a mass of streets in a busy city puts high demands on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

The results of the study fit in with models in which the hippocampus simulates possible future journeys, while the prefrontal cortex helps to plan which ones will get us to our destination. However, when we have technology telling us which way to go, these parts of the brain don’t respond to the street network – the brain switches off its interest in the streets around us.

Previous research by UCL showed that the hippocampi of London cab drivers expand as their knowledge of streets increase. The current study suggests drivers who habitually follow satnav directions do not engage their hippocampus, thus limiting learning of the street network.

In further research, the team analysed the street networks of major cities around the world to visualise how easy they may be to navigate. With its complex network of small streets, London appears to be particularly taxing on the hippocampus. In contrast, much less mental effort may be needed to navigate Manhattan in New York – with its grid layout, at most junctions you can only go straight, left or right.

This important research will allow city planners and architects to consider the layout of cities and consider how the brain’s memory systems are likely to react. The designers of the great Chinese cities of Beijing and Guangzhou, amongst others, already know this. Having bulldozed the old slums and parts of the old city, Beijing stands as an object lesson in intelligent city design.

Architects could also look at the layouts of future care homes and hospitals to identify areas that might be particularly challenging for people with dementia in order to help make them easier to navigate.

If you want to improve your spatial and navigation skills, then you should avoid using the satnav, but if you just want to get to your destination with as little worry or effort as possible, then there is no reason not to use it… unless of course it leads you into a field or a cul-de-sac, as inevitably, it occasionally will.


Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.