DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Go back to Michael Jackson’s cousin.
* * *
DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.
DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: is GPS technology changing your brain?
MAUGHAN: When people give me directions, they’re like, “And then go three blocks, and then you’ll turn east.” And I’m like, as if I know what east is?
* * *
MAUGHAN: Angela, do you ever stop to think what it would be like to live in another age? Like, maybe the Renaissance in Italy, or the Roman Empire, or the Wild West?
DUCKWORTH: No! That is such an interesting question. I probably should stop to think about what it would be like to teleport to another era in history.
MAUGHAN: Well, here’s the thing. I don’t actually think about it that much either, but I just want to be clear that I’m 100 percent confident that basically in any other time, I would not have survived. So, I have glasses. I can’t see well without them. I have health issues that require modern medicine. But to top it all off, I have literally, like, no geographic intelligence.
DUCKWORTH: What? Did I know this about you?
MAUGHAN: Yes, I can get lost in my own neighborhood and never find my way home. When I first moved to Boston, I decided to go for a run without my phone. And I figured out where to run and how to get back, but I ended up miles away from where I thought I was. And I stopped to ask someone for direction, told him where I lived and just asked him if he could point me how to get home. And he just looked at me and was like, “Uh, that’s really far away.” And I was like, “Right. I don’t have a phone. I don’t have a wallet. I have two legs and that’s how I’m going to get there. So, if you could just point me in the right direction.” And again, he’s like, “Ah, that’s really far away.” So, I finally convinced him. I said, “Look, I can’t run fast, but I can run far. Can you just point me where to go?” Finally, I got there. But I thought about this idea. If I lived in any other time, I don’t know that I would have survived. I would have never made it back to the village after the hunt or whatever.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, I think I can top that. I lived in New York City for two years. And, like, you know how New York City is one of the most mapped out cities —.
MAUGHAN: Yes, and easily navigable.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, like the numbered streets. Every time I would walk outside my apartment building, I’d have to, like, look for the Empire State Building and then, like, get reoriented again and, like, count street numbers. But, okay, you and I could get lost in a paper bag together.
MAUGHAN: This is actually very humanizing. I have a brother, Dave, who’s good at literally everything. It’s kind of crazy. He’s charismatic, good looking, he’s athletic, he’s an incredible business person. When I found out that he was geographically challenged as well, it was the first time I realized that my perfect older brother was human.
DUCKWORTH: Was human. Super Dave.
MAUGHAN: Anyway, it was really eye opening for me. So, here’s my question for you. I’m so grateful I live in a world with GPS. But I’m curious: am I dumber for using GPS? Or better put: what is using GPS all the time doing to our brains?
DUCKWORTH: Okay, that question, more generally — like, what is technology doing to our brains — that one, I have thought of. And one of the reasons I was thinking about it is I stumbled across this paper by two scientists and their names are Louisa Dahmani and Véronique Bohbot. And they wrote this paper called “Habitual Use of GPS Negatively Impacts Spatial Memory During Self-Guided Navigation.”
MAUGHAN: Okay, see, that is very depressing, because if I’m already bad without it, think how much worse I am with it!
DUCKWORTH: Yes, that would be the depressing conclusion. But let me briefly tell you about this paper, because it was really cool and very ambitious. So basically, you know, we all have our favorite GPS, like, I don’t know, Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, you know, our cars now tell us where to go, and we don’t even have to look at anything because, of course, our cars are speaking into our ears. So, what these two scientists did is they did two kinds of studies. One is they just looked correlationally at a cross-section of how much time people had spent using GPS and then gave them tests of spatial memory. Like, “You’re here, you know, there’s like 12 arms in this maze. You get this clue. Now figure out where the treasure is.” That sort of thing.
MAUGHAN: And how many people just say, “I, I give up”? Are like me and just like, “Thank you so much for this test. Here’s my pen. I’m just going to walk out now. This has been super fun.”
DUCKWORTH: Just, like, fall to their knees weeping? Yeah, I might say, like, “There’s no way. I have, like, a less than one in 12 chance of getting, like, the right one of the 12 arms.” That would have been you and me, but I don’t know that this was true of the — they looked at drivers, actually. I think they looked at adults who owned cars and drove. So, they looked cross-sectionally for a pattern, and lo and behold, they find that people with greater lifetime GPS experience, right, who have used GPS more — they had worse spatial memory during these self-guided navigation tasks. “Self-guided” meaning, like, okay, now you have to figure this out without GPS. So, a kind of, like, use it or lose it story.
MAUGHAN: That is so depressing.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, well, let me give you the second, like, super depressing finding from this paper, which is, okay: so, then they were like look, who knows? Correlation is not causation. Let’s longitudinally follow some of these drivers and see whether their spatial memory declines as a function of how much they use GPS in the three years following the first cross-sectional study. And, yeah, that’s pretty much what they found. So, this is a quote from their abstract: “Although the longitudinal sample was small, we observed an important effect of GPS use over time, whereby greater GPS use was associated with a steeper decline in hippocampal-dependent spatial memory.” And here’s the thing, when they say “hippocampal,” like, you have a hippocampus on each side of your brain — on the left and the right — and it’s shaped a little bit like a seahorse.
MAUGHAN: Random fact. Love it.
DUCKWORTH: And we all love seahorses. It’s kind of the seat of memory. They say, “Importantly, we found that those who use 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.” You know, they wanted to know whether this relationship was a reverse-causal relationship like, “Oh, you have a bad sense of direction, therefore you rely on GPS.” But they want to say in this study that there was more evidence for the GPS doing the causing. So, we’re talking about, like, structural brain changes as a function of using technology.
MAUGHAN: So, because I use GPS so much, I’m really bad at directions. One thing that I think is really interesting about this idea of GPS versus maps and kind of how we used to navigate — there was this thing I was reading in Scientific American about how GPS weakens memory and what we can do about it, and they talked about two different types of navigation: allocentric versus egocentric. And allocentric — obviously, “allo” means other.
MAUGHAN: Sorry, I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t know that before I read this.
DUCKWORTH: It does mean “other,” but — it’s a great little prefix. Try dropping “allo” into your casual conversation the next week. I’ll have the “allo” entree, please. Not this entree, the allo entree. Go on.
MAUGHAN: So, allocentric navigation means “other.” But that’s when you look at a map and everything is displayed as it relates to all the other features and landmarks in the environment. And so, it’s giving you this sense of what’s around you. It teaches you, contextually, what the world looks like. And that is so different than this egocentric navigation, which is what we use with GPS, right? Because “egocentric” means “ego” — self. That one I did know.
DUCKWORTH: That one I think you could drop like, “Of course, ego.”
MAUGHAN: “Obviously.” But that means that all of the information is relative to you and your current position, your current orientation on the map. They wrote that “we are no longer active navigators. We are passive passengers aboard the GPS.”
DUCKWORTH: And we’re no longer allocentric navigators. We are now egocentric navigators. Okay. I’m just going to go all in on egocentric navigation, because that is the only way I can get anywhere. So for those who recognize this kind of navigation pattern, it’s like this: you’re telling somebody how to get to that restaurant, and you’re like, “Okay, so you go, like, three blocks, and then you know that Wawa that kind of closed, but it’s sort of open, but it’s closed? Okay. When you see that, and it’s on your left, then turn right, and then go another block. And then there’s going to be this, like, purple, weird apartment building. So then, you go two more storefronts, and there’s the restaurant.” That’s egocentric navigation, because it’s all relative to you.
MAUGHAN: Can I point out how amazing it is that you just described it that way? Because you were using points of interest. Like, “Turn left at the WaWa.” When people give me directions, they’re like, “And then, go three blocks, and then you’ll turn east.” And I’m like, as if I know what “east” is?
DUCKWORTH: Right! And by the way, when I think of allocentric navigation — which I don’t do a lot, but I do with more frequency than you would imagine, because I’m married to Jason Duckworth, who has possibly the world’s best allocentric navigation sense. Like, he could migrate to the North Pole. Like, this kid — well, my husband — he lands at an airport in some city he’s never been, and he’ll be like, “I think it’s, like, north-northeast from here, right?” And I’m like, “What?”
MAUGHAN: It’s like, why would you ask me that question? Just, just direct us.
DUCKWORTH: And then he has a sense of where true north is! Isn’t that amazing? And I asked him once how he does this — and by the way, this is a whole topic of research, you won’t be surprised. Many scientists wonder how birds do migrate. They have maybe navigational systems that we don’t. But with humans, you know, at least with Jason, he actually notices things like the length of the shadow and angle of shadows — right! People actually who have, like, excellent senses of navigation have said they’ll notice things like, in nature, for example, like the side of the tree that the moss is. I mean, things that you and I would probably not notice. But this allocentric navigation is actually navigating the world more top down, you know, as opposed to this egocentric like, “Oh, it’s all relative to me. The mailbox, the WaWa, turn right. On your left will be this.” And I have to say that for a long time, I thought that Jason’s allocentric navigation and Angela’s egocentric navigation — I thought it was because I was a girl. I was like, “Oh, there’s a gender difference. Like, girls navigate the world egocentrically and men navigate the world allocentrically.” But I found this paper because —.
MAUGHAN: You just fed into so many stereotypes.
DUCKWORTH: I did. And I even said “girl.”
MAUGHAN: I’m just going to say, I hope it’s not true. But I have no idea.
DUCKWORTH: Honestly, I don’t think this is a settled research question, but there was this paper in 2014, and it’s called “Navigational Strategy May Be More a Matter of Environment and Experience Than Gender.” And what they did is they gave people, again, these sort of, like, navigation games, if you will, because you don’t really actually take people out into a forest when you study their navigation sense.
MAUGHAN: “Hey, here’s a compass.” “Good luck. If we see you again, lucky us.”
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, right. Hopefully you can “run long” even if you can’t “run fast.” But basically they, you know, didn’t find any differences in gender in terms of the strategies people used. But you know, egocentric navigation — navigating the world by, like, where you are and where everything is relative to you — whether or not it’s related to gender, I don’t know, I personally feel like I’m okay with that.
MAUGHAN: I’m okay with that as well, but I will say the one magical piece of allocentric navigation is I think it can lead to greater adventure. Because if you’re always going from one spot to the other spot in this linear path where you’re just going to follow the directions and get there, I think so often we miss out on all the things that are around us that we may never have noticed before. So, let me give you just a silly example. I was living in Chicago and some friends and I had gone to Eastern Ohio.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, since I do not have a good allocentric navigation sense — wait, let me — Chicago is in Illinois? And Eastern Ohio is — I mean, this is how bad — I’m going to say like on the left side? The West side? Like, where is Ohio?
MAUGHAN: No, Ohio is further east than Illinois.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. All right. I’m with you. Keep going.
MAUGHAN: So, I’m driving — if you’re looking at a map, I’m driving from Ohio, I go left to Chicago.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, thank you.
MAUGHAN: But I’m with two of my really good friends, Lori Sorenson and Jimmy Party — which is a great last name, by the way. It’s a “party.”
DUCKWORTH: Mhm. Jimmy Party. Woah.
MAUGHAN: But we, we are driving back to Chicago and we have time, because we left early, and we don’t have to get back to Chicago until that night. And so at some point along the road trip, we decided we’re going to stop at every brown roadside sign. Now, brown traffic signs, they’re the things that indicate, like, a recreational activity, or cultural interest, or something like that.
DUCKWORTH: What? I didn’t know that. Wait, is that true?
MAUGHAN: 100 percent true.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, for the whole country?
MAUGHAN: Yes, that’s my understanding. I mean, if you drive —.
DUCKWORTH: Woah! That is perhaps the most useful thing you’ve ever said to me — that the brown signs mean that they’re like recreational sites?
MAUGHAN: Yeah, it’s like, here’s a Presidential Library, or here’s a other — I don’t know, interesting site.
DUCKWORTH: Gosh, that is just the most useful thing to know.
MAUGHAN: Kind of, I mean, you don’t drive, so I don’t imagine you’re on a ton of road trips.
DUCKWORTH: I know, that’s true. I’m never going to go on a road trip. But it might come in useful in case I have a personality change.
MAUGHAN: And may you not, because we love your personality. But we’re, we’re doing this drive from Ohio to Chicago. We decided to stop at all the brown roadside signs. And it turns into this amazing adventure, because we weren’t just having to go from point A to point B. My only one that I really remember is we ended up stopping in Gary, Indiana at Michael Jackson’s childhood home. And they have this huge, like, I don’t know, monument in the front yard of this house. And we, we paid, like, an extra $10 instead of taking a picture, like, three feet away outside the fence, we wanted to take a picture right next to it. We talked to Michael Jackson’s cousin. It was all really dumb, but was just a fun adventure.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Go back to Michael Jackson’s cousin.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, we talked to him.
DUCKWORTH: What you mean you talked to — was he just, like, hanging out there?
MAUGHAN: He lives in the house. He’s, like, selling access to the house. He didn’t let us in the house but access to the yard and talks and that’s why they charge you money to come in and take a picture. And we totally paid, because we’re like, “Look, I’m never going to be in Gary, Indiana again, so might as well have the fun experience.”
DUCKWORTH: No, you will not.
MAUGHAN: So, if we hadn’t decided to have an adventure and if we’d just gone from point A to point B, we would have missed out on one of my favorite road trips and one of my most fun experiences.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Mike and Angela explore how other forms of modern technology may be affecting our brains.
DUCKWORTH: “Don’t use a computer. Don’t use a calculator. Don’t use a thesaurus. Don’t use a dictionary.”
* * *
Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about how technology changes our brains.
MAUGHAN: Okay, let me expand our question a little, if I could. We’ve talked a lot about maps, and I think that’s important, and as two people who are, shall we say “geographically challenged,” a good question for us.
DUCKWORTH: “Allocentrically challenged.”
MAUGHAN: I’m egocentrically challenged too.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, just challenged.
MAUGHAN: Yeah, yeah, just challenged. Just challenged. Let’s expand the question, though. You know, there was a fascinating article — it’s old now — in 2008 in The Atlantic by the journalist Nicholas Carr. But it kind of shook the cultural zeitgeist at the time. And the headline was, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
DUCKWORTH: I read that article! It was the cover of The Atlantic the month that it came out.
MAUGHAN: Right, and I think it’s still one of the most famous articles written in The Atlantic. I remember talking about it then. The fact that I remember a specific Atlantic article all these years later — it really had a big impact on people. And he talked about how the internet was chipping away at his capacity for concentration and contemplation. My favorite line in the article, he says, “I was once a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now, I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”
DUCKWORTH: Ooh, that is such a good line.
MAUGHAN: Isn’t it beautiful?
DUCKWORTH: You what? It’s so good, I don’t think ChatGPT could have come up with it.
MAUGHAN: Okay, I see where you’re going here.
DUCKWORTH: I mean, cause you could argue that if Google is making us stupid, ChatGPT is making us total idiots, right?
MAUGHAN: 100 percent. But so, talk to me about that. Is technology making us dumber? And I, I want to warn that there’s always, I think — before you answer — I think there’s always this worry that we catastrophize new technology, and we’re like, “Oh no, it’s going to be the worst.” So, he talks about, as well, in this article — and I’m just going to caveat here — that Socrates was really, like, scared about the development of writing, because he thought, “Everyone’s going to rely on the written word and then they’re going to stop having these good memories. They’ll become forgetful.” And there was this other guy, when the Gutenberg Bible came out, his name was Hieronimo Squarciafico —.
DUCKWORTH: That is an even better last name than Party.
MAUGHAN: Can I — I just want to say I can pronounce Hieronimo Squarciafico, which is —.
DUCKWORTH: That’s really impressive.
MAUGHAN: — really hard. But he was so worried about books becoming available because he said books are going to lead to intellectual laziness. People will be less studious. It’ll weaken their minds. I got news for you, Squarciafico. Books are not the problem, buddy.
MAUGHAN: But here’s my point. There’s always this worry about catastrophizing what’s going to happen. And so I don’t want to be that guy, but at the same time, talk to me about what it means.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, so I had a friend — well, I mean, I have a friend, but at the time, — and I’m thinking of January of 2023, my friend, Lyle Ungar, who’s a Professor of computer science, and I think it’s hard to appreciate just how much A.I. has shifted in less than two years. He’s really one of the computer scientists at the leading edge of this stuff. So, he texts me, and he’s like, “We should write an op-ed together, because the New York City Department of Education is banning the use of ChatGPT in schools.”
MAUGHAN: No, no, no. Bad choice.
DUCKWORTH: Right? So like, I mean, it’s debatable. But certainly —.
MAUGHAN: Sorry, I love that I’m like, “New York Department of Education, how dare you people!” As if they’re listening to me.
DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, maybe they should listen to Mike Maughan. What would be your visceral intuition of why that would be a bad thing? I mean, you understand why they want to ban it. They’re like, “We don’t want kids to cheat on their essays and, you know, pretend to know things they don’t.” But why do you think they shouldn’t do that?
MAUGHAN: So, I completely understand the knee-jerk reaction to ban something like this. Absolutely. I was teaching my class at B.Y.U. yesterday, and our guest was Omar Johnson, former C.M.O. of Beats by Dre, Apple executive —.
DUCKWORTH: Artistic genius.
MAUGHAN: Artistic genius. Creative genius. And we were having this conversation about artificial intelligence more generally, but also ChatGPT. And this is where we came down on it. I don’t believe that artificial intelligence or ChatGPT will rule the world, but people who know how to leverage artificial intelligence and ChatGPT will rule the world. So, we can either say, “Oh, we’re afraid of this. Don’t bring this into my classroom.” Or we can say, “Look, if you are going to survive in the new economy, in the new world where ChatGPT and artificial intelligence are running everything, you need to be the person who knows how to leverage it.” And Omar talked about, “You have to become a prompt genius.” You have to figure out how to prompt these things. I mean, otherwise it’s just like saying, “Oh, you can’t use the internet for your research paper.” It’s, like, well, okay, that was a bad bit of advice someone may have given you back in the early 2000s or whenever.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so if we tell all of our young people, you know, from age 5 to 18 in the city of New York, “Hey, don’t use this technological innovation.” I mean, it’s almost like, “Don’t use a computer. Don’t use a calculator. Don’t use a thesaurus. Don’t use a dictionary.” And Lyle and I did end up writing that op-ed, which we published in the Los Angeles Times. And we said at the end of this op-ed: “Will A.I. one day surpass human beings, not just in knowing but in thinking? Maybe, but such a future has yet to arrive. For now, students and the rest of us must think for ourselves.” And our last line is: “Like any tool, GPT is an enemy of thinking only if we fail to find ways to make it our ally.” And my, my ChatGPT story is I’ve been using it pretty much every day. I’m trying to keep a tab open to ChatGPT. And there’s this plugin where you can get ChatGPT to read, like, a Google doc or a PDF. And I’m writing this book, as you know, Mike, and I will regularly let ChatGPT give me feedback on entire chapters.
MAUGHAN: Wait, on your own book?
MAUGHAN: Wait, so you say, “Read the chapter and tell me” — what?
DUCKWORTH: Tell me what you think.
MAUGHAN: Wait, what? Give me an example of what it spits out for you.
DUCKWORTH: So, the advice that I’ve gotten from Lyle, who’s trying to get me to become more like a prompt genius, but right now I’m just like a prompt — you know, like — I don’t know where I am between, like, total idiot and genius.
MAUGHAN: I’m a prompt junior in college.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, exactly. I’m a sophomore. Um, so, you tell it who you are. You tell it who you want ChatGPT to be. So, I’ll be like, “I’m Angela Duckworth, and I’m writing my second book. I’m a psychologist.” And then, you know, you can say whatever else you want to say about your audience, et cetera. But then you say, “You are my editor. And you are giving me feedback at this rough draft stage.” And oh my gosh, Mike. The feedback is so goddamn good! You know, once it said, “So you did this in this chapter. It’s a little wordy. You repeat yourself.” And then, I wrote back to ChatGPT — because it is like a conversation. So you’re, like, responding to its last utterance. So, I say, “Okay, interesting. You think I’m repetitive. How so?” And here’s one very specific true example. I started one of the chapters in this book that I have not yet finished with a story of Jason working really hard earlier in his life and his career. And then, I made my own point about my own life, about me working a little too hard — not, not working smart, just working hard. And then, ChatGPT gave me the feedback that maybe I should choose one of our stories and not tell both of them. So, I go back and read the chapter and gosh darn it, if ChatGPT isn’t spot on. I was like, “So true ChatGPT.” Whaa — I know! Isn’t that amazing? It’s amazing.
MAUGHAN: See, this is such a good example of how technology is actually making us better instead of maybe where GPS is making us less good at navigating life.
DUCKWORTH: Do you think it’s making us better, or is it just making the product better? Like, is my brain better?
MAUGHAN: Hmm. That, dear friend, is the question.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, let me suggest that there is a classic study that sheds some light on this. It was published in Current Biology in 2011. The two authors were Katherine Woollett, who’s a clinical psychologist and then Eleanor Maguire, who’s a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. And the title of the paper is “Acquiring, quote, ‘The Knowledge,’ unquote, of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain Changes.” So first, I will tell you that London taxi drivers — you probably know this, right? They’re, like, legendary.
MAUGHAN: Legendary. I mean, you tell them an address, and they’re like, “Okay.” You’re like, “Wait, I’m so sorry. What? You’ve heard of that street before?”
DUCKWORTH: And London is not laid out like New York City, right?
MAUGHAN: It is not a grid system.
DUCKWORTH: So, apparently “the knowledge” is, like, shorthand for this, like, incredibly voluminous set of, you know, landmarks, and street names, and like, what’s one way and what’s closed at certain times of day? And it’s so hard to navigate these London streets that it can take years to train to become a licensed taxi driver in London. but I did get fascinated by this, because this study is, like, so famous, and it’s so often used to make the point, or at least raise the question that maybe there are trade offs when you train it and gain it in one domain —.
MAUGHAN: Okay, great line, by the way. “Train it and gain it.” We’re going to mark that.
DUCKWORTH: I’m sure someone said it before me, but everyone always says, “use it or lose it.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s so negative. How about train it or gain it?” But anyway, I’m sure ChatGPT could have come up with that.
MAUGHAN: Genius, and we’re going to document that forever.
DUCKWORTH: I think it is more positive. But the story is actually interesting of how the study came about. So, one of the authors, Eleanor Maguire, neuroscientist, she first gets the idea of studying London cab drivers because she knows that in animals — so, in the animal kingdom, some birds and mammals, they, like, hide their food. I mean, like, squirrels do this, right? And then, you know, months later, right, they’re supposed to dig up that acorn. That means that certainly Mike Maughan and Angela Duckworth would have starved — like, “We have no idea where we left that acorn.”
MAUGHAN: I probably wouldn’t remember I had an acorn.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, you’d be like, “Acorn? What acorn?” And so, these animals are amazing at memorizing the locations of all these hiding spots, because by the way, they bury these things in a way that, like, other animals can’t see, which means they can’t see it either. So, they truly have to memorize.
MAUGHAN: And they come back in a different season where it’s — doesn’t even look the same.
DUCKWORTH: Doesn’t that just give you a whole new level of respect for squirrels?
DUCKWORTH: I mean, come on. We bow down to you, squirrels. So, anyway, so here’s what Eleanor Maguire finds. She’s like, “Okay, if these squirrels have this amazing spatial memory” — and she knows that there’s a part of the hippocampus that’s responsible for this, right? A specialized part of the hippocampus for spatial memories. She’s like, “I wonder if London taxi drivers also use this part of their hippocampus.” And she then asked the million dollar question. And it’s so genius. She’s like, “I wonder if in all those years that they’re studying and driving in order to pass this exam to get their license, whether their hippocampus grows.” They have to rely on their own brain, so they’re actually training this area of the brain and not relying on GPS — whether it would change those brain areas. And in fact, that is exactly what she finds. So, she and her colleague were able to scan the brains of London taxi drivers — and let me just read you from the abstract of this paper: “We utilized a unique opportunity to study average I.Q. adults” — meaning they were normal people.
MAUGHAN: Not a diss.
DUCKWORTH: It wasn’t a diss. Yes, it was like, these are not clinical patients with brain lesions, right? Um, “Operating in the real world,” IRL, “as they learned over four years the complex layout of London streets while training to become licensed taxi drivers. In those who qualified,” so those who actually got their license, “acquisition of an internal spatial representation of London was associated with a selective increase in gray matter volume in their posterior hippocampi and concomitant changes to their memory profile.” Gray matter, Mike, is the neurons themselves. But when you have an increase in gray matter, it’s like — it’s like when you lift weights and your bicep gets bigger. That’s analogous to what they discovered in the study — that these London taxi drivers had bigger areas of their hippocampus, the area that’s associated with spatial memory, and they were better at spatial memory tasks. And it was one of the earliest studies to kind of definitively show you are changing your brain by what you do with it. And if it really is “train it or gain it,” I guess you could say that if you use ChatGPT to do certain things, if you use GPS to do your navigation, then maybe you are getting smarter in some ways — like how to use these tools — but the actual function that the technology is doing for you, the argument might be, collectively, looking at all the research, that there’s a tradeoff, right? That the actual thing that you’re actually using the technology to do maybe your brain is doing less of. Therefore, you may be shrinking that part of the brain. I mean, that’s the guess from this tradeoff research.
MAUGHAN: Well that is both encouraging and depressing all at the same time. Look, I think Angela and I would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on how modern technology is affecting the way we think? And what’s your experience with it personally? So, record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email it to us at NSQ@Freakonomics.com. And maybe you will hear your voice on a future episode of the show. Angela, I want to share with you a story that I think brings together a little bit of what we’ve talked about in this conversation today from a dear mentor of mine — just kidding — named Michael Scott.
DUCKWORTH: Ah, okay. I get the “just kidding” now. Go on.
MAUGHAN: Thank you. Michael Scott is a character in the TV show, The Office. And there is a point in season four where they are launching this thing called Dunder Mifflin Infinity, and they are moving their sales online onto a website, and it’s threatening all of the sales people who are like, “Oh no, what’s going to happen to my job?”
DUCKWORTH: I love this. Go on.
MAUGHAN: It’s an early 2000s debacle where people are thinking, “The internet’s going to take my job.” Take it today for what ChatGPT and A.I. is going to do to your job. So Michael Scott, who is a famously terrible manager — good human, but terrible manager who makes so many dumb mistakes — is on a tour of vengeance to prove that technology is not the future, that people matter. You need the human connection to make sales and all these things. And so he’s going to try to prove this, and in the midst of that he is using a GPS in his car. And he comes to a point in the road where it says, “Turn right.” And he’s like, “Well, it says turn right.” And he’s in the car with Dwight Schrute, who this other character who’s kind of this annoying guy. And he’s like, “No, Michael, it means veer right. It means veer right.” And he said, “No, it said turn right.” So, he turns hard right. And he drives straight into a lake. And then, he says to Dwight, “See, this is what technology will get you. Technology can’t make the right decisions. It told me to drive into a lake.” Now, obviously, Michael Scott was interpreting technology poorly.
DUCKWORTH: Right, obviously it was the difference between “turn” and “veer.”
MAUGHAN: “Turn” and “veer,” but it did say “turn,” so in fairness to Michael. And I think this is a silly story. It’s a very funny episode of the show. But it paints the picture —.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it makes, like, a serious point.
MAUGHAN: Right, of like, you get to either control technology or it can control you. I think that’s where I would summarize kind of what we’ve talked about. Yes, your brain’s going to change either way, but you can also control what you do with it and how you leverage technology to sort of advance your own cause. Is that fair?
DUCKWORTH: It’s so fair, and because we are talking about London taxicabs, I do have this quote from Winston Churchill, who said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
MAUGHAN: Oh, amen.
DUCKWORTH: I think he would agree. I don’t know how he would feel about Dunder Mifflin Infinity, but I think he would agree.
MAUGHAN: I think he would be so confused.
This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:
In the first half of the show, Angela says that we all have our preferred mapping systems, and she mentions Yahoo Maps as a potential favorite. However, Yahoo Maps was shut down in June of 2015 as it struggled to compete with other navigation apps like Google Maps, Waze, and Apple Maps.
Later, Mike tells the story of visiting Michael Jackson’s childhood home in Gary, Indiana, coincidentally located at 2300 Jackson Street — which is also the title of the Jacksons’ final studio album. He recalls taking pictures of a huge monument to the pop star in the front yard. However, you won’t see it if you visit today; the 5,000-pound granite monument featuring a silhouette of Jackson was removed for unknown reasons when siblings Janet and Randy Jackson visited the property in 2017. And it’s unclear whether Jackson’s cousin still resides in the 867-square-foot home that once housed nine siblings and two parents. But it is true that various relatives have lived in the space and maintained the property over the years. And according to Amy Howell, vice president of tourism, marketing, and communications for the state of Indiana, you should not have to pay to take a picture in front of the house.
Finally, Angela discusses the cognitive tradeoffs that might result from using artificial intelligence or GPS technology. But we should note that the authors of the London taxi cab study wrote that drivers who completed “The Knowledge” might experience tradeoffs as well. Cognitive neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire found that although the rear of a driver’s hippocampus was often larger than average, the front was usually smaller than average — meaning the drivers might excel at some forms of memory, like where specific addresses are located, but become worse at others. That’s it for the fact-check.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on burnout.
T.J. TITCOMBE: Hi, this is T. J. Titcombe from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Back in the 80s, I was the assistant director in one of the original victim assistance programs in the country. Our staff of seven responded to the scene with police for about 700 calls a year, helping after the most traumatic events that humans could face. We learned the hard way to screen our job applicants for one common quality of professional helpers. We watched out for what we called the “savior complex.” “I can save the world because I care so much.” Those folks quickly burned themselves to a crisp. The counselors who were most successful and effective were able to pull back, accept the often harsh realities of life, and lift others up without taking on their pain.
That was listener T.J. Titcombe. Thanks to her and to everyone who shared their experiences with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on how GPS and other technologies are affecting the way you think! Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com, and you might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: what is the connection between creativity and happiness?
MAUGHAN: If your child’s like, “Hey, I want to be an artist or go into job, you’re like” —
DUCKWORTH: “You’re going to be a starving artist.”
MAUGHAN: “Maybe we could think about —.” And then, you give a much more practical answer.
DUCKWORTH: Like, you could be an accountant!
MAUGHAN: And hate your life.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
MAUGHAN: My desk, actually, it’s got like seven boxes of pumpkin-spice mix that my computer is standing on because my standing desk doesn’t work.
- Véronique Bohbot, professor of psychiatry at McGill University.
- Nicholas Carr, journalist and writer.
- Winston Churchill, 20th-century Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
- Louisa Dahmani, research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
- Jason Duckworth, president of Arcadia Land Company and Angela’s husband.
- Omar Johnson, founder of ØPUS United, former C.M.O. of Beats by Dre and former V.P. of Marketing at Apple.
- Eleanor Maguire, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.
- Michael Scott, fictional character and protagonist of NBC sitcom The Office.
- Socrates, ancient Greek philosopher.
- Hieronimo Squarciafico, 15th-century Venetian editor.
- Lyle Ungar, professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Katherine Woollett, clinical psychologist at the Kings College London Hospital.
- “Don’t Ban Chatbots in Classrooms — Use Them to Change How We Teach,” by Angela Duckworth and Lyle Ungar (Los Angeles Times, 2023).
- “How GPS Weakens Memory — and What We Can Do about It,” by Mar Gonzalez-Franco, Gregory Dane Clemenson, and Amos Miller (Scientific American, 2021).
- “Habitual Use of GPS Negatively Impacts Spatial Memory During Self-Guided Navigation,” by Louisa Dahmani and Véronique Bohbot (Nature Scientific Reports, 2020).
- “Navigational Strategy May Be More a Matter of Environment and Experience Than Gender,” by Sharon A. Livingstone-Lee, Philip M. Zeman, Susan T. Gillingham, and Ronald W. Skelton (Learning and Motivation, 2014).
- “Acquiring ‘the Knowledge’ of London’s Layout Drives Structural Brain Changes,” by Katherine Woollett and Eleanor Maguire (Current Biology, 2011).
- “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr (The Atlantic, 2008).
- “Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” S4.E2 of The Office (2007).