London - Many drivers have blamed their satnav for leading them into embarrassing mishaps. Some have driven off piers into the sea or been stranded on beaches - all because the persuasive voice of the satnav overrode common sense.
And now research has shown that the handy devices do indeed ‘switch off’ the parts of the brain we use to navigate.
Choosing our own route works the brain in a way that simply does not happen when we are following orders, the study found.
University of London researchers monitored 24 volunteers as they navigated a computer simulation of Soho while their brains were scanned.
Two brain areas were focused on - the hippocampus, which relates to memory, and the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning. When the volunteers tried to find their own way, rather than using a satnav, activity spiked in both areas as they entered new streets, the researchers found.
Activity increased when they faced a complex maze of streets.
By contrast, when the volunteers followed instructions on where to go - similar to following a satnav or a mobile phone app - the brain showed no additional activity, the research published in Nature Communications found.
Senior author Dr Hugo Spiers, of University College London, said: "Entering a junction such as Seven Dials in London, where seven streets meet, would enhance activity in the hippocampus, whereas a dead-end would drive down its activity. If you are having a hard time navigating the mass of streets in a city, you are likely putting high demands on your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
"When we have technology telling us which way to go, however, these parts of the brain simply don’t respond to the street network. In that sense, our brain has switched off its interest in the streets around us."
Dr Christopher Connolly, a neuroscientist at the University of Dundee, said it was not necessary to stop using satnavs. He said we should instead "engage our brains and bodies in a variety of different tasks that promote our happiness and health".
Dr Dean Burnett, of Cardiff University, said it is not possible to completely ‘switch off’ the hippocampus and most people get by without taxing their navigation skills.
He added: "If you want to become better at spatial navigation, then you should avoid satnavs where possible.
"If you just want to get to your destination with as little worry or effort as possible, then they’re fine."