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Lost without your sat nav? Here's the science behind why

They may be the ultimate resource for nervous drivers travelling unknown routes, but have you ever wondered what effect using a satellite navigation system has on your brain?

Becoming safer on the roads in any way you can

Ensuring your own road safety as well as the safety of all road users around you is the most responsible thing you can do as a driver.

Thankfully, in the 21st century this is easier than it's ever been as there are now many technological advancements to help guide you on your journey towards becoming the safest driver you can be.

A telematics device is one of these; the data it collects can provide you with an overview of your driving so you can address any potentially risky or illegal behaviour. What's more, black box car insurance can reward your good driving with a number of benefits, such as the chance to get the best possible price on your premium at renewal.

While it won't do much to improve your driving ability, another piece of tech has meant getting lost on a road trip is now, more or less, a thing of the past. We're talking about the phenomenon of satellite navigation systems. However concerns have been raised for some time that the switch from using traditional paper road maps to GPS technology has led to drivers losing their natural navigation skills.

Over reliance on technology does come with the potential for trouble of course, especially when people become dependent on it before the systems are completely trustworthy (there have been numerous incidents in the past where a driver's sat nav has led them astray and into danger).

Now, a new study has shed light on what exactly happens to your brain when following directions from a sat nav.

The study

The research from University College London, published in Nature Communications, monitored the brain activity of 24 volunteers as they navigated a computer simulation of Soho. Sometimes, they had to make their way around the streets by themselves without any guidance, while other times they followed the directions from a GPS system.

When the volunteers were navigating without instructions, there were spikes of activity seen in two key areas of the brain: the hippocampus, an area involved with memory and navigation, and the prefrontal cortex, an area involved with decision-making. The engagement of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex allows drivers to mentally map out the possible paths and make a decision on the best solution.

When following directions from a sat nav, no such activity was detected, and it's this mental disengagement that can sometimes cause people to drive into danger when the technology makes a mistake. This is also why drivers may struggle to remember the way to a destination they've only travelled to using a sat nav.

So, are sat-navs bad?

Does this research prove that over dependency on sat navs is dangerous for drivers?

The answer is no.

As long as you keep your wits about you, and use common sense about the route ahead, using a sat nav is fine. Just don't expect it to improve your navigation skills.

The study's findings simply reveal that certain parts of your brain become less active when following directions from a GPS system.

Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist from Cardiff University, commented that using GPS navigation technology is perfectly fine "if you just want to get to your destination with as little worry or effort as possible". However, if you wish to develop your spatial navigation skills, you might want to consider switching off your sat nav and finding your own way to your destination.

And, of course, when using a portable sat nav or an app on your phone, make sure the device is secure and in a place that is in your line of sight but not blocking your view of the road.

Do you think you'll be ditching your sat-nav in the future to help improve your own internal compass? Let us know what you think of the research by Tweeting us at @Coverbox using #satnav.