How GPS is robbing you of your memory

and what that means for wayfinding designers.


I once read a story about Socrates, philosopher in ancient Greece, who raged against people writing their todos, thoughts and discoveries in scrolls. The reason for this was that he believed, that by doing so, you robbed your memory of important data.

Generally Sokrates sounds like a slightly annoying man, who didn't mind imposing his philosophies onto other men. And I can vividly imagine him tearing scrolls and feather pens out of people's hands while lecturing them about the importance of not giving your data away to scrolls however the convenience, cough google cough.

Even though Socrates might have taken this idea a little bit too far, he does have a proven point when it comes to certain tools in our lives; one of those tools being the GPS.

Often when we find our way around the world, we use GPS as a cherished tool. However if you've been in the unfortunate situation of losing your GPS on the travel back from a place you've just used GPS to get to, you've might experienced this phenomena: you have no clue on how you got there and no ide how to get back.

And this is where Socrates comes in: you don't know how to get back, because you didn't store the route-data in your brain. Instead you stored all that data in an external devise.

When you store spatial data in your brain, it's called creating a 'cognitive map', that, according to some theorists, are made up of landmarks, borders, lines, nodes and districts. The map gets better and more precise the more you move in the same area (without help that is). And here's a cool fact for you to prove it; researchers put tiny electrodes on a rat's brain, while moving through a maze. When they saw the result, they found that the rat's neurons had lit up in the shape of the route, it took when running through the maze.

I gather that this means that the cognitive map isn't just a spatial psychology theory anymore – it's very real and concrete.

I love GPS and I use it a lot. But when it comes to designing wayfinding tools in a tourist destination I'm more of a skeptic. First of all, I don't believe that the best way to experience a new place is through your phone; but most importantly, I think that if you want to give your visitors a good experience and a lot of memories, the build of a solid mental map in their mind is key as they also forms quality memories.

You can do this by using traditional wayfinding tools, such as intuitive landscaping, map and signage design, as such tools forces the mind to stay engaged. However if the digital media is important for your design to work, think about how you can make features that ping pong with the surroundings in order to create a cognitive map and therefore also more long term quality memories.

This area of research is blooming and I will be back with more micro-articles about the subject. Although if you're dying to know more, I got key knowledge from the article and book listed below:

Smartphones as Locative Media, 2008, Jordan Frith:

“Rather than view travel as ‘dead time’ (Green 2002) mobilities scholars argue that mobility is an essential element that shapes how people experience place. Places are not merely a set of fixed destinations. Places are performances, and part of those performances is mobility”

Spatial cognition & Computation, 2017 17 4 273, Wayfinding through orientation, 2017:

A thorough run-through of the research in the field and ideas on how to improve GPS