Is Your GPS Scrambling Your Brain?
American tourist Noel Santillan became an unlikely folk hero in Iceland after he entered a typo into his GPS and drove hundreds of miles out of his way. How can anyone wander so far off the mark? A growing body of research suggests that our reliance on navigational technology might be altering our brains in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
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Before Noel Santillan became famous for getting lost, he was just another guy from New Jersey looking for adventure. It was last February, and the then 28-year-old Sam’s Club marketing manager was heading from Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport to the capital city of Reykjavík with the modern traveler’s two essentials: a dream and, most important, a GPS unit. What could go wrong? The dream had been with him since April 14, 2010, when he watched TV news coverage of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption. Dark haired, clean-cut, with a youthful face and thick eyebrows, he had never traveled beyond the United States and his native Mexico. But something about the fiery gray clouds of tephra and ash captured his imagination. I want to see this through my own eyes, he thought as he sat on his couch watching the ash spread.
It took a brutal week in October 2015 to finally get him to go for it—Tuesday a taxi hit his Mazda; Wednesday a tree nearly fell on the car; Thursday, when he went to his girlfriend for comfort, she dumped him. “I was heartbroken and just wanted to get away,” he recalls feeling at the time. Scrolling through his Facebook news feed, he came across a friend’s photo of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon spa. “So Iceland comes back into my head,” he says.
Four months later, on a frigid, pitch-black winter morning, he was driving away from Keflavík airport in a rented Nissan Versa hatchback toward a hotel in Reykjavík, excited that his one-week journey was beginning but groggy from the five-hour red-eye flight. As a pink sun rose over the ocean and illuminated the snow-covered lava rocks along the shore, Santillan dutifully followed the commands of the GPS that came with the car, a calm female voice directing him to an address on Laugarvegur Road—a left here, a right there.
Though he sensed that something was off, Santillan made a consciuos choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all.
But after stopping on a desolate gravel road next to a sign for a gas station, Santillan got the feeling that the voice might be steering him wrong. He’d already been driving for nearly an hour, yet the ETA on the GPS put his arrival time at around 5:20 P.M., eight hours later. He reentered his destination and got the same result. Though he sensed that something was off, he made a conscious choice to trust the machine. He had come here for an adventure, after all, and maybe it knew where he was really supposed to go.
The farther he drove, the fewer cars he saw. The roads became icier. Sleeplessness fogged his brain, and his empty stomach churned. The only stations he could find on the radio were airing strange talk shows in Icelandic. He hadn’t set up his phone for international use, so that was no help. At around 2 P.M., as his tires skidded along a narrow mountain road that skirted a steep cliff, he knew that the device had failed him.
He was lost.
Getting lost is a fading phenomenon of a distant past—like pay phones or being unable to call up the lyrics of the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song in a heartbeat (“…your dreams were your ticket out”). Today, more than 50 years since the Navy built the first suborbital navigation system, our cars, phones, and watches can track our every move using signals from the 70-plus satellites circling the earth twice a day.
Most people would agree that this is a good thing. It’s comforting to know where you are, to see yourself distilled into a steady blue icon gliding smoothly along a screen. With a finger tap or a short request to Siri or Google Now—which, like other smartphone tools, rely heavily on data from cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots as well as satellites—a wonderful little trail appears on your device, beckoning you to follow. Tap the icon of a house and you’re guided home from wherever you are. By knowing the most direct route—even one that changes on the fly with traffic conditions—we save time and fuel and avoid hours of frustration. The mass adoption of GPS technology among wilderness users has, it seems, helped make backcountry travel safer. According to the National Park Service, search-and-rescue missions have been dropping, from 3,216 in 2004 to 2,568 in 2014.
The convenience comes at a price, however. There’s the creepy Orwellian fact of Them always knowing where We are (or We always knowing where They are). More concerning are the navigation-fail horror stories that have become legend. Last March, a 64-year-old man is believed to have followed his GPS off a demolished bridge in East Chicago, Indiana, killing his wife. After Nicaraguan troops mistakenly crossed the Costa Rican border in 2010, to stake their nation’s flag on rebel turf they thought was in their country, they blamed the snafu on Google Maps. Enough people have been led astray by their GPS in Death Valley that the area’s former wilderness coordinator called the phenomenon “death by GPS.” The source of the problem there, as in most places, is that apps don’t always have accurate data on closed or hazardous roads. What looks like a bright and shiny path on your phone can in fact be a highway to hell.
Then there’s the bigger question that’s raised when we hear about people like Santillan who, in their total dependence on technology to find their way, venture absurdly off course. What, we wonder, is our now habitual use of navigation tools doing to our minds? An emerging body of research suggests some unsettling possibilities. By allowing devices to take total control of navigation while we ignore the real-world cues that humans have always used to deduce their place in the world, we are letting our natural wayfinding abilities languish. Compulsive use of mapping technology may even put us at greater risk for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. By turning on a GPS every time we head somewhere new, we’re also cutting something fundamental out of the experience of traveling: the adventures and surprises that come with finding—and losing—our way.
By the time Santillan white-knuckled down the mountain in northern Iceland, he figured that despite the insistence of his GPS, he wasn’t anywhere near his hotel. There was no one else on the road, but at that point there wasn’t much else to do but follow the line on the screen to its mysterious end. “I knew I was going to get somewhere,” he says. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
The directions ended at a small blue house in a tiny town. He parked his car out front and slipped his hotel-reservation printout into his jacket as he headed toward the door. A pretty blue-eyed blond woman answered after the second ring. She smiled as he stammered about his hotel and handed her his reservation.
No, she told him in accented English with a laugh, this wasn’t his hotel, and he wasn’t in Reykjavík. That city was 380 kilometers south. He was in Siglufjördhur, a fishing village of 1,300 people on the northern coast. The woman, who’s name happened to be Sirry, pronounced just like the Apple bot, offered to phone the hotel for him. She quickly figured out what had happened: the address on Expedia (and his reservation printout) was wrong. The hotel was on Laugavegur Road, but Expedia had accidentally spelled it with an extra “r”—Laugarvegur.
Santillan checked into a local hotel to get a good night’s sleep, with the plan of driving to Reykjavík the next day. When he told his story to the woman at the front desk, she chuckled. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh at this,” she said, “but it’s funny.”
“It’s funny to me also,” Santillan replied.
And when she told him that her name was also Sirry, Santillan felt like he was part of some grand cosmic joke. The next morning, when he went to check out, the joke became even grander. “Some reporters want to talk with you,” said Sirry.
The first Sirry had posted his absurd story on her Facebook page the previous day, Santillan soon learned, and it had quickly been shared around. Something about the tale struck a nerve. Here was a sympathetic character who personified a defining aspect of the modern human condition—and hilariously so. A Facebook friend of Sirry’s who’s the editor of an Icelandic travel site wrote a blog post on the “extraordinary and funny incident.” Soon the misadventure attracted the interest of TV and radio journalists.
They weren’t the only ones who wanted to talk with him. “Everybody in the town knew about me,” he says. Some of the locals of Siglufjördhur came to the hotel to welcome him and take pictures. One offered him a tour of their local pride and joy, the Icelandic Herring Era Museum, a small red building devoted to the town’s biggest industry that plays films on the salting process and has an exhibit of a brakki, a dorm for the so-called herring girls who worked the docks. The chef at Santillan’s hotel prepared the local beef stew for him, on the house.
Enjoying all the hospitality, Santillan decided to spend an extra night. The following day he went on TV, explaining to a reporter that he’d always found GPS to be so reliable in the past. By the time he made it to Reykjavík that evening, he had become a full-blown sensation in the national media, which dubbed him the Lost Tourist. DV, an Icelandic tabloid, marveled that despite all the warning signs, the American had “decided to trust the [GPS].” Santillan sat down for a radio interview on a popular show. “World famous here man!” one Icelandic fan posted on Santillan’s Facebook page soon after. “Like your style. Enjoy our beautyful country.” Before long, his experience made international news, with reports in the Daily Mail, on the BBC, and in The New York Times, which headlined its story “GPS Mix-Up Brings Wrong Turn, and Celebrity, to an American in Iceland.”
The manager of the hotel in Reykjavík had seen reports on Santillan’s odyssey and, to make up for the traveler’s hard time, offered him a free stay and a meal at the fish restaurant next door. Out in the streets, which were full of revelers celebrating the annual Winter Lights Festival, Icelanders corralled the Lost Tourist for selfies and plied him with shots of the local poison, Brennivin, an unsweetened schnapps. As a band played a rock song outside, Santillan kept hearing people shouting his name. Some guys dragged him up a stairway to a strip club, where one of the dancers also knew his name. The whole thing seemed surreal. “I just felt like, This isn’t happening to me,” he says.
Still, he was going to ride it out as long as he could. After the marketing manager of the country’s most famous getaway, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, wrote him offering a free visit, Santillan headed out the next day. The address came preloaded in his rental car’s GPS, since it was the one place everyone wanted to go.
As Santillan drove out under the winter sky, he marveled at how far he had come. Not long ago, he’d been just another working stiff on his couch in New Jersey. Now he was a rock star. He pictured himself resting in the cobalt blue waters, breathing in the steam. But half an hour later, when his GPS told him he had arrived, he got a sinking feeling. Looking out the window, he saw no signs of a geothermal spa, just a small lone building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The Lost Tourist was lost again.
Scientists have long sought to understand how we navigate our physical environment. A key early moment came in the 1940s, when psychologist Edward C. Tolman was studying how rats learned their way around a maze. He concluded that they were building representations of the layout in their nervous systems, “which function like cognitive maps.”
Some 30 years later, neuroscientist John O’Keefe located cognitive maps in mammalian brains when he identified “place cells” in the hippocampus region which became active when lab rats were in specific locations. In 2005, Norwegian neuroscientists Edvard and May-Britt Moser expanded on O’Keefe’s findings, discovering that the brain also contains what they called grid cells, which, in coordination with the place cells, enable sophisticated navigation. The trio was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for uncovering what the committee called our inner GPS. Their work has profound implications—not only for our understanding of how we orient ourselves but for how our increasing reliance on technology might be undercutting the system we carry around in our heads.
Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains. University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire has used magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of London taxi drivers, finding that their hippocampi increased in volume and developed more neuron-dense gray matter as they memorized the layout of the city. Navigate purely by GPS and you’re unlikely to receive any such benefits. In 2007, Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill University and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, completed a study comparing the brains of spatial navigators, who develop an understanding of the relationships between landmarks, with stimulus-response navigators, who go into a kind of autopilot mode and follow habitual routes or mechanical directions, like those coming from a GPS. Only the spatial navigators showed significant activity in their hippocampi during a navigation exercise that allowed for different orientation strategies. They also had more gray matter in their hippocampi than the stimulus-response navigators, who don’t build cognitive maps. “If we follow our GPS blindly,” she says, “it could have a very detrimental effect on cognition.”
There’s no direct link between habitual use of navigational technology and memory loss, but the implications are certainly there. Bohbot cites studies showing that a smaller and weaker hippocampus makes you more vulnerable to brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, since it’s one of the first regions to be affected. “It may be the case that if you don’t use the hippocampus, it shrinks and you’re at greater risk,” she says.
Individuals who frequently navigate complex environments the old-fashioned way, by identifying landmarks, literally grow their brains.
Other researchers suggest similarly foreboding possibilities. Julia Frankenstein, a psychologist at the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Freiburg, has found that people are capable of orienting themselves within a city based on memories of traditional maps, which help us develop a larger perspective of an area. When you navigate by GPS, focusing only on a route without a broader spatial context, you never gain that perspective. “It is likely that the more we rely on technology, the less we build up our cognitive maps,” she says.
New research is adding to our understanding of exactly how we create those maps. Maguire recently worked with programmers to create Fog World, a shadowy virtual-reality environment studded with alien landmarks. By scanning test subjects’ brains as they made their way around the scape, she could observe the spatial-learning process in action. In a series of tests last summer, she found that the retrosplenial cortex, located in the middle of the brain, played a key role in logging landmarks that were useful for navigation. Once enough landmarks were logged, the hippocampus would engage. These two sections of the brain, it appears, work together to form a cognitive map. Maguire’s data also suggests that some of us just have a stronger sense of direction than others. “What we found was that poor navigators had a harder time learning the landmarks,” she says. “They never did as well as the good navigators.”
Maguire is planning experiments to see if it’s possible to intervene with the learning process to improve navigation. As for what we can do to retain our skills, she and other researchers offer the same strong suggestion: as often as you can, turn off the GPS.
One of the most passionate and informed champions of that advice is Harvard professor John Huth. A highly respected experimental physicist who was part of the team that discovered the Higgs boson (the so-called God particle, because it endows other particles with mass), he became obsessed with our disappearing ability to find our way in the world after a tragic event near his home on Cape Cod.
On a Sunday in October 2003, two young kayakers set off onto Nantucket Sound from the southern coast of the Cape. Mary Jagoda, a 20-year-old from Huntington, New York, and her 19-year-old friend Sarah Aronoff, from Bethesda, Maryland, paddled into the choppy, 60-degree waters without a compass, map, or GPS. A dense fog soon rolled in. When they were reported missing an hour or so later, a frantic search ensued. The following day, their kayaks were spotted tied together but empty. Coast Guard cutters, helicopters, and local police canvassed the area through the night to no avail. Jagoda was recovered on Tuesday, having died from drowning. Aronoff was never found.
Huth was kayaking just a half-mile from the women when they went missing. He, too, had become disoriented in the fog, but he’d been sure to take note of the wind and wave direction before leaving the shore, a habit he’d picked up after a scary experience several months earlier in Maine. He paddled back to shore blindly but with a strong sense of where he was headed.
The deaths of the women left him with a serious case of survivor’s guilt. His response was to embark on what he now calls a year of self-imposed penance by learning everything he could about navigation. He used flash cards to memorize constellations, studied the routes of 1600 B.C. Pacific Islanders and medieval Arab traders, and learned to orient himself using shadows. Eventually, he says, “I realized I was looking at the world very differently than I had beforehand.”
Huth hopes that modern humans will rediscover a deep sense of place rather than “outsource cognitive functions to automation.”
He dug in deeper, compelled by a sense of duty to fight back against automation bias, the human tendency to trust machines more than ourselves. In 2009, he began teaching a new undergraduate class at Harvard on primitive navigation techniques. The course led to his 2013 book, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, which makes a powerful case for learning how to get where you need to go simply by paying attention to the environment around you.
Last summer, I visited Huth on Cape Cod to get a primer on what he teaches his Harvard students. One morning, he suggested we try a method for tracking distance used by the Roman legionnaires. Huth, an athletic, bearded 58-year-old, was wearing cargo shorts and a white T-shirt as we walked silently along a rocky beach near his home, counting paces, with every 1,000 paces equaling mille passus, the Latin phrase at the root of the word “mile.” We passed lobster red tourists, stopping every so often so he could compare our paces, which he penciled into a small notebook for later calculation. After a little while, he led us up a series of sand dunes.
“It was right here,” he said, pointing to an overgrown patch of beach grass where, he explained, there used to be a handmade wooden sign with a picture of one of the kayakers. There had been one phrase on it, he recalled: “No one is lost to God.”
Over Huth’s years of research on traditional navigation, one of the places that turned out to be an especially rich source of techniques was Iceland, an isolated island frequently shrouded in fog and surrounded by tempestuous seas. Europeans discovered it by accident, just like they had North America. As Huth recounted to me, a Norse sailor named Naddodd arrived there after drifting off course on his way to the Faeroe Islands. Others found means of reaching it purposefully. When the Norse colonized the country in the ninth century, they found it populated by Irish monks who had arrived, Huth speculated, by following the paths of migrating ducks. (Subsequent Norse explorers employed ravens.) As the Norse learned, Iceland’s weather was so unruly that summer offered the only reliable winds to get there. Sailing 50-foot wooden boats with tar-soaked moss sealing the hulls, they would hug the coast of Norway as they traversed between known landmarks.
Huth was particularly fascinated by how “for the Norse,” as he writes in his book, “time reckoning and direction were intertwined.” They divided days into eight pieces that reflected the eight divisions of the horizon—north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest—and created clocks by reading the sun’s relative position to markers, like a farmhouse or large rock. “The time of day,” he writes, “is then associated with a place.”
Huth hopes that modern humans will rediscover that deep sense of place. In the meantime, he rails against our choice to “outsource so many of our cognitive functions to automation.” There are, he told me, “tons of examples of people substituting automation for actual reasoning.” None better, of course, than Noel Santillan.
As it happens, Huth could have found himself in his own lost-tourist predicament a couple of summers ago, when he took a vacation to Iceland with his wife and daughter. As usual, he relied on a map instead of a GPS to get around. But as he drove into Reykjavík from the airport, he got mixed up on the city’s winding roads. At that point, he did what the Norse did centuries before: he sought out markers that he had already identified and coordinated them with the cognitive map he’d created in his head—the water shouldn’t be over here, it should be over there.
“I just stopped, looked around, and tried to identify landmarks,” he told me as we completed another mille passus. Fairly soon he was back on the right path.
This, he said, is what Santillan should have done. “If I’ve gotten to the point where the roads start looking impassible, I would say, ‘OK, this is fucked.’ Then I’d basically try to retrace my steps.”
Santillan had no idea how he’d become lost again. For whatever reason, the GPS had led him not to the Blue Lagoon but to some convention center off an empty road. All he wanted to do was submerge himself in those wondrous warm waters, but instead he was trudging through the snow to see if anyone inside could help him find his way.
As he stepped into the building, a funny thing happened. He was recognized—again. The people inside were workers from the Blue Lagoon who had assembled there for a meeting, and they had seen the news reports about him. The fact that Santillan was lost again made him all the more credible. After patiently posing for a bunch of pictures, he succumbed to an old-fashioned way of getting to where he was going: following the directions given to him by another human being.
And so, with the GPS turned off, he drove on—a right here, a left there—looking for landmarks along the way. His hippocampus, activated by the incoming data, stitched together the beginnings of a cognitive map. Before long he was soaking in a steamy bath, white volcanic mud smeared on his face—though not enough to mask his identity from some fawning spa employees. By then he’d already vowed to return to Iceland. Maybe, he thought, I’ll even live here at some point. Until he returns, he has something to remember his misadventure: an Icelandic GPS. The rental agency presented it to him when he returned his Nissan. Santillan tried hooking it up to his car when he got back to New Jersey, but alas, the foreign model didn’t work. So now it sits in a box in his bedroom, a reminder of his time as the Lost Tourist, a nickname he considers a badge of honor. “I like it,” he says, “because that’s how you find interesting things. If you don’t lose yourself, you’re never going to find yourself.”
David Kushner (@davidkushner) is the author of Alligator Candy, a memoir about the murder of his brother.