Do smart phones and GPS navigators make our brains lazy?

Q: Do smart phones and GPS navigators make our brains lazy? Is my reliance on these gadgets bad for my brain?

A: These are questions I get asked a lot in my role as a clinical neuropsychologist. “If my smart phone and GPS are doing all the thinking for me, is my own natural brain power withering away from lack of challenge?”

It turns out our gadget use is not so bad for our brains. Inputting and extracting information from our smart phone, for example, is a mentally engaging pursuit.

The steps and effort involved in creating a reminder for our smart phone calendar require several cognitive strategies:

  • We must contemplate what to add to our calendar, thereby allocating our attention to this information. This is an important first step to committing something to memory.
  • We must plan and organize our schedule to ensure we are available for meetings and to avoid scheduling conflicts.
  • By thumbing, tapping or finger pecking this information into our device, we engage the motor cortex of our brain. We also engage the visual cortex and language processing networks by composing and reading back our entry.

Processing information in all these ways creates more neural pathways (or avenues) to retrieve it later. While typing, we are likely to repeat the information to ourselves out loud or mentally, and again when we do a final check of the contents. The same goes for inputting a shopping list. These steps help us to remember the items, even if we have forgotten our smart phone at home.

With the sheer number of available gadgets and apps, and the endless upgrades we must adapt to, we should not worry that that our mental capacities will be downsized by these technologies. There is a lot of learning and problem solving involved in using and integrating them into our lives.

Research tells us that staying active and mentally engaged is good for the brain. Step-by-step instruction technologies, such as GPS, give a misleading impression that users can mentally disengage after inputting the destination they wish to travel to. In reality, GPS is at best a useful guide. We must still use common sense and problem-solving abilities when navigating unfamiliar roads.

The GPS is an instructive, navigational tool not unlike a cake recipe. We must still use discretion about whether to follow the exact recipe or modify it. In more cases than not, we are cognitively active participants, whether following a recipe or use our smart phone.

If using gadgets and apps motivate us to exercise, eat better, learn more, stay informed, and be socially connected and organized, then technology may be contributing to a brain gain, not a brain drain.

Dr. Eva Svoboda
Clinical Neuropsychologist
Memory-Link program at Baycrest.