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GPSs and Cognitive Mapping, or lack of it

Late in 2010, I expressed some concerns [1] about uses and perceptions of GPS receivers and similar technology. This article [2] published in the New York Times (copied verbatim here [3] if the NYT tries to force you to subscribe) refers to some of the concerns I share with risks relating GPS use. It’d be silly not to agree how fantastically useful it is to be able to pinpoint one’s position, especially in situations where safety demands it. On the other hand, it’s easy to get into habits of GPS use which don’t merely reduce one’s awareness in an immediate situation, but might also hinder those mental skills from being exercised or developing.

A point made in the article is that the more traditional use of a map, which in a back-country context would sometimes be augmented by tools such as compasses and altimeters, requires a person to repeatedly refer to the surrounding physical world. It exercises parts of the brain responsible for generating cognitive maps of the surrounding area. Once a person begins to rely more on a GPS, these skills and abilities are lost, and spatial abilities degrade.

The article focuses on metropolitan navigation, for which GPS devices often provide auto-routing information and maps play a minimal role. It’s not directly comparable with typical GPS use in the back-country, which often (but not always) doesn’t make use of GPS auto-routing features that give people step-by-step instructions involving no map. Still, I suspect there are factors with back-country GPS use which, if allowed to do so, can discourage one from paying so much attention to the physical world, and thereby inhibit the exercise and development of cognitive spatial ability.

From my own introspective experience, at least, it’s disturbingly tempting to consult a GPS for positions frequently. I think this is a habit that can easily replace the more traditional non-GPS alternative, which might some day have required careful consultation of the surrounding physical world, closely watching for changes whilst moving through it, then connecting that information back to whatever might be available on a map. Even when a GPS device includes an electronic map, the display of such maps is likely to make less area visible than a typical paper map, or at best show a wider area with very simple detail. Despite having a digital map, the nature of using the GPS in the first place means there’s lower motivation to mentally compare and connect that map with the physical world, as opposed to simply letting the GPS confirm whereabouts on the map you are.

There’s no denying that a GPS is a wonderful tool in the navigation toolbox. I purchased my second GPS a few weeks ago, and it’s great. I especially like using it for making electronic records of where I’ve been. Obviously it’s also good to know that I can get an accurate position if and when I need it. There are times when this can be extremely useful from a safety perspective, like quickly and safely getting out of blizzards or white-outs, and so on. But since buying my first GPS, I’ve been perpetually paranoid of coming to rely on it too much.

I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to leave it stashed in my pack and primarily used for mapping. I’m not a model navigator, and I probably make myself look even worse at navigating when others are around. I have a habit of thinking un-considered thoughts out loud, and of trying things out to see if they feel wrong and the back-tracking, which tends to look less impressive than standing and considering. (Yeah, I meant to do that! :)) I do, however, think there’s much developmental benefit in trying to figure things out before consulting the certainty of a GPS, unless there’s clearly no time for messing around.

I don’t think it’s far-fetched to claim that GPSs are likely to be more fallible than other navigational tools, merely due to their complexity and reliance on batteries. I don’t have hard statistical data to back this up with today’s devices and I have met people who believe the opposite, that a modern GPS is reliable enough that they trust their lives to them over and over again without much of a backup, though it’s certainly not something I’d happily do. I don’t think the potential fallibility of a GPS is necessarily the most important point, though.

Any of a map, a compass, an altimeter or a GPS, or some other device, can fail or become lost. When it eventually happens, having the developed cognitive skill and observations to cope with what remains as well as is possible is indeed likely to be nifty to say the least. Sometimes knowing how to get somewhere is even more important than knowing exactly where you are.

As always I’d be keen to hear other people’s thoughts and experiences on this.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "GPSs and Cognitive Mapping, or lack of it"

#1 Comment By Alex On 10 February, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

I’ve used GPS devices for the last five years in two contexts.

My day job, if you can call it that, is to jaunt around Antarctica, mainly driving on sea ice and ice shelves. Neither of these have ‘maps’ in the sense that the cracks, crevasses and, well, lumpy bits, that form the major hazards move around, and change from year to year, and even week to week. They also lack landmarks, especially in the dark or on cloudy days. In this case, the only map you have, the only security for any journey, is to refollow routes you’ve taken recently. Here GPS is essential if any attempt is made to travel in less than ideal conditions, and I’ve become comfortable following a route on a GPS for many kilometers while otherwise essentially blind. In those instances I absolutely rely on the GPS, and without it (and the knowledge that any potential rescuers also have a copy of my tracks and routes) would often have to sit still and wait for conditions to improve from ‘ok’ to ‘perfect’.

That said, in my tramping existence I use GPS very differently. The unit essentially sits in my bag recording my path, and otherwise gets left alone. I enjoy navigating with a map, feeling the form of the landscape and knowing where I am, and what’s around me. The GPS is there in case I need to find my way back, or tell someone exactly where I am, but otherwise it’s just recording history. Knowing that I have a GPS has expanded my comfort zone though. There are more trips I’ll make on my own, and I’m more likely to strike out with a compass through a white-out on a featureless top because I can always resort to using the GPS to backtrack to a safe location. This probably puts me in greater danger, in some sense, than I would tolerate before having a GPS, but I find the rewards justify taking those small extra risks.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 18 February, 2012 @ 11:38 pm

Hi Alex. Thanks for the point and insight. Yes, I guess I wasn’t really using Antarctica and comparable regions in my frame of reference when I wrote this post, and I fully appreciate what you’re getting at. Out of interest, what’s the protocol if you’re doing that kind of work and the GPS fails? Would you immediately call in, and are there reliable ways of locating you once the conditions are manageable from a trip plan you’ve left behind, and so on?

I’ve been reading lately about how some of the very early antarctic explorers found their way around, which seems quite amazing given all the elements they coped with in the circumstances.

#3 Comment By Alex On 26 March, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

If the GPS failed the protocol would be to sit tight and wait for someone to come and find you, which you could do for several days if necessary. If you were on a fresh route you’d have radioed a path in to the base on the way out which someone could reasonably follow. Any routes which are used frequently also have flags or barrels laid out along them so it’s possible to travel without GPS until you can’t see the next marker.

The early folks had none of that luxury and I’m amazed they did so well at following repeatable routes to depots. I know that Amundsen, who had to place depots in flat empty spaces, laid out a long flag line across the route so he could miss slightly and follow the flags to the known point. They’d also build snow pyramids every few kilometers to reset their track if necessary. At the pole itself they fixed their position from the sun, but also made sure to walk a couple of miles in every direction just to be sure they’d been to the right bit of snow.