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This article was published on July 23, 2014

Get lost: How over reliance on digital maps could lead us mentally astray

Get lost: How over reliance on digital maps could lead us mentally astray
Curtis Silver

As we navigate our way through the world, sometimes we just need to stop and Instagram the flowers. Be sure when you do, the path is on your turn by turn navigation. You wouldn’t want to have to read any unnecessary road signs. Make sure you tweet about missing your exit to your house though, since the GPS didn’t alert you quick enough to make the proper lane change.

This is how many of us navigate through the world now, and it is so very dysfunctional.

With every additional technology that assists in exploring the physical world around us, we are losing our sense of direction and ability to navigate without them. While many of us from generations previous might still retain some sense of the world, it is the generations that are growing up with this tech that are unable to fathom living without it. This creates a disassociation with the world around them.

While the technology itself isn’t horrible, we tend to forget that we need to take everything in moderation.

The world around us is analog; we use digital tools to navigate it


While these tools can be beneficial at times, they are not something that we should solely rely on to bring us from one point to another. Without first learning to read the analog world, children especially are losing a part of their sense of being. Our instinct to rely on the digital world is fast creating crippling dependence on it.

Yes, we all find ourselves consulting the GPS to get home from an unfamiliar gas station. But these days, many are unable to function without digital directories.

Neuroplastician John “The Brain Coach” Kennedy laid out why we need to first focus on the analog processes before complementing them with the digital processes – especially when it comes to developing brains.

“In the case of learning to read a map and relating it to our environment, several mental processes are strengthened,” he says, specifying the following criteria:

  • Shape recognition: critical to forming thoughts
  • Direction and orientation: relate to our ability to orient ourselves and the intrinsic ability to know when we are moving away or toward something, (some feel this is critical to moral decision making as well).
  • Analysis and Synthesis: analysis of environmental factors, distance, timing, safety and synthesis, which is pulling these together for seeking a relevant or most appropriate/safe path.
  • Working memory: as we learn to navigate our environment and pull in all the other factors (mental connections) our memory builds until we can find our way automatically (it becomes a zombie system) allowing us the ability to enjoy the environment instead of looking at a screen.

“With a GPS, our brains learn to rely on an abstract direction command and trust it,” Kennedy continues. “This is not good to develop free critical thinking skills. No hard work, no mental growth; a dangerous cycle since the more we rely on a digital guide, the more we need to.”

It sometimes seems like some sort of antiquated generational response to want to encourage people – children and adults alike – to put their phones in their pockets and pay attention to the world around them. Yet, learning to navigate in an analog world is a dying art.


While the cognitive and learning issues are one point of contention, another is just pure human survival. Learning how to navigate the world around us without sole reliance on apps and smart devices could be a lifesaving book of knowledge.

Survival expert and author of The Ultimate Situational Survival Guide: Self-Reliance Strategies for a Dangerous World Robert Richardson believes that while technology is a great tool to have to learn about the world around you, heavy dependence on that technology as the primary source of navigation is a recipe for disaster.

“All technology can and will fail, and relying on it during a disaster situation can be deadly,” says Richardson, also the founder of Off Grid Survival. “What really concerns me is what might happen during a large-scale evacuation. During that type of situation, you are going to have tens of thousands of people all using the same type of device to find their way out of town; this is going to create a deadly chokepoint.

“Thousands upon thousands of people are going to be funneled into the same areas, creating traffic jams and road closures that are going to cost lives.”

Richardson doesn’t completely discount the use of digital maps and GPS technology; he suggests using it now to help familiarize yourself with your town, in order to map out multiple routes in case of emergency. Our awareness of the local area and routes to important locations will only help to serve us in an unforeseen situation.

Mental mapping

While there have always been several adages about stopping to ask for directions, the point of the matter is that you should always somewhat know where you are and where you are headed without a computer voice telling you. Plus, what if you get lost in the woods?

Dr. Scott Hammond is a volunteer searcher with Rocky Mountain Rescue Dogs based in Utah and has participated in searches all over the west. Many campers and hikers find themselves lost due to not only being lost in the woods, but relying too heavily on their GPS systems.

walking on wood board

From failing to calibrate the compass, running out of batteries, and not knowing the difference between UTMs and Lat Long are just some of the issues hikers deal with in an unfamiliar setting. While technology has assisted fewer people in getting lost, Dr. Hammond points out that those that do find themselves truly lost.

“One of my very first searches, I was assigned to work alongside a very experienced searcher,” he says. “I had my GPS on, set my track logs, and followed my electronic map. He followed his eyes, looking at the terrain like a lost person and predicting how they would travel.

“When I asked him why he did not use GPS he said, ‘Because I have never found a lost person on the GPS screen. They are always out there (he pointed to the woods).’ GPS should never be a substitute for common sense.”

The position of the sun, following trails and landmarks, letting the stars guide us – all natural and analog navigation tools that are being forgotten while we Instagram the sunset as the GPS continuously tries to re-position.

Today’s generation won’t experience the world the same way we did 20 years ago (unless we make them). In the darkest of scenarios – a child getting lost or taken – being able to know their surroundings can be paramount to them returning home safe. Their inability to recognize local landmarks (because their noses are in their phones constantly) is not only detrimental to their cognitive development as mentioned, but their general safety.

As child therapist Tammi Van Hollander, who preaches to her clients about going back to the basics, recounts a tale of her own son getting lost, you can see that this issue is not easily solved.

“My son was dropped off at the wrong bus stop,” Van Hollander tells me. “He walked for over an hour to try to find his way home. Rather than calling me, he posted pictures on Instagram about being lost.

“Not only is technology destroying our creativity and brain cells, it is the perfect example of being lost, both literally and metaphorically. Technology sucks us in and the real question remains… how do we navigate our way out of this technological world and think independently?”

Putting our brains to work

Using Android phone

Our continued loss of direction and sense of the world around us are not something that’s easy to overcome – not with the continued influx of technology aimed to assist us in finding our way. Still, it does not serve to blame the technology, but rather our growing inability to survive without it.

“You have people so insanely immersed in their devices,” Richardson continues, “that they miss everything that’s going on around them. During any survival situation, awareness is one of the most important things you can have on your side and can often determine the outcome of that situation.”

Like every other aspect of technology, over-reliance on them will detach us from our surroundings.  Additionally, it has made us less sensitive to the beauty and splendor of the world.

Sure, that might sound a bit romantic… but there are great things out there that even Google Maps can’t pin. Sometimes, we have to un-crane our necks to see them, and hope that we don’t get lost doing so.

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