From the new Atlantic:
Four researchers compared the effectiveness of a cell phone equipped with a GPS receiver to traditional paper maps and to “direct experience” (first walking through a route with a guide, then trying it alone). They asked 66 participants to each walk six different routes, finding their way each time using one of the three navigational aids, and later to sketch from memory the routes they had taken. The GPS users traveled longer distances, walked more slowly, and made more stops during the walk than the participants using the low-tech methods, and they made more directional errors and rated the overall experience as more difficult than did the direct experience groups. Perhaps because the GPS users were more focused on the information on their small screens than on their surroundings, the maps they drew showed a less accurate recollection of their routes.
I’m always impressed by how people will completely ignore common sense when listening to that robotic voice telling them to turn left or turn right. A few months ago, I was taking a taxi to the airport and the driver, who had probably driven to the airport hundreds of times, decided to use his brand new GPS unit. (If memory serves, it had been a Christmas present.) Anyways, he kept on saying stuff like “This is an interesting route” and “Wow, I never would have gone this way” and “I wonder why we’re going north when the airport is south”. After about 25 minutes of driving in the wrong direction, the driver eventually realized that he’d plugged in the wrong address. But he was willing to believe an obviously deluded machine for a disconcertingly long time. I almost missed my flight.
The moral, I guess, is that we should trust our hippocampal place cells.