Few things are more freeing than hitting the open road—but being behind the wheel is more complex than it may seem. When we navigate the rules of the road, we're utilizing a whole host of important brain functions. In fact, some studies have found that driving can help prevent cognitive decline. But one common habit that many of us are guilty of in the car could have the opposite effect, causing us to lose certain cognitive skills over time. Read on to learn what it is, and why it's not too late to put the brakes on and shift into reverse.
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Driving employs a wide range of cognitive functions.
Every time you get behind the wheel, you utilize a number of brain functions to help you successfully get where you're going. A 2019 study points out that attention, executive function, memory, visuospatial skills, and mental status—all facets of cognitive function—affect driving performance for both younger drivers between the ages of 17-23 and older drivers between the ages of 63-84. Among these groups, the team observed that "overall cognitive functioning improved the prediction of driving performance over and above age for speeding, lane deviations, and overall driving performance."
In other words, it's how well your brain is functioning, now how old you are, that makes you a good (or bad) driver.
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Navigating requires an important subset of cognitive skills.
Virtually every part of your brain needs to be engaged when you're driving—but some elements of cognitive functioning are more relevant than others.
A 2020 study published in the journal Scientific Reports explains the two main strategies our brains use when we're figuring out where to go: "One is the spatial memory strategy and involves learning the relative positions of landmarks and serves to form a cognitive map of the environment. This strategy critically relies on the hippocampus, a brain region heavily involved in episodic memory and relational memory," the team writes. "The other strategy is the stimulus-response strategy and involves learning a sequence of motor responses (e.g., turn left) from specific positions (e.g., next corner)." That last one, they say, "leads to more rigid behavior and allows us to navigate on 'auto-pilot' on routes that we travel frequently."
The catch? We only use those cognitive skills when we're not using Global Positioning System (GPS) to navigate.
Doing this while you drive can increase your risk of cognitive decline.
According to the study, using GPS while you drive has been linked with one particular form of cognitive decline. "We assessed the lifetime GPS experience of 50 regular drivers as well as various facets of spatial memory, including spatial memory strategy use, cognitive mapping, and landmark encoding using virtual navigation tasks," the researchers wrote. They found that "people with greater lifetime GPS experience have worse spatial memory during self-guided navigation," meaning they were worse at navigating when driving without GPS.
Three years after the initial study, the team followed up with 13 of the participants. "We observed an important effect of GPS use over time, whereby greater GPS use since initial testing was associated with a steeper decline in hippocampal-dependent spatial memory," the team explained. "Importantly, we found that those who used GPS more did not do so because they felt they had a poor sense of direction, suggesting that extensive GPS use led to a decline in spatial memory rather than the other way around," they noted.
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Exercising your spatial awareness can help your brain stay sharp.
Turning off your GPS can be a great way to help you retain, re-train, and regain cognitive function—but several other things can help you improve spatial awareness, as well. Experts recommend playing chess, doing puzzles, playing memory games, practicing art, and exercising regularly, all of which can have a positive impact on visuospatial skills.
If you believe your spatial awareness has been seriously compromised, speak with your doctor about your concerns. These changes can be signs of a deeper problem, such as Alzheimer's or another brain disorder, and it's important to be evaluated by a professional before getting behind the wheel again.