The Lost Tourist: Why You Can’t Always Trust GPS To Send You In The Right Direction

19 December 2023 |
Episode 26 |

Episode summary

If you were lost and trying to find your way, would you trust your navigational instincts over GPS directions that seem to be wrong? In this episode, I explore the amusing but cautionary tale of “The Lost Tourist” who famously trusted GPS directions while on vacation in Iceland, only to end up hundreds of miles away from his destination…twice! I explain the concept of automation bias and why humans have a tendency to trust machines more than they do themselves, and how a dependency on GPS technology impacts your natural wayfinding abilities and “inner GPS”. I also share some ways that you can keep your brain active to preserve your natural navigational abilities and develop spatial orientation knowledge, and challenge you to try navigating a journey without using GPS this week.

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • Why you can’t always rely on GPS to send you the right way
  • The hilarious story of Noel Santillan, aka The Lost Tourist, and how GPS led him astray during a bucket list trip to Iceland
  • How using GPS technology frequently could be shrinking your brain
  • Place cells, grid cells, and the science behind your “inner GPS” or how you navigate without GPS devices
  • How to protect and preserve your natural wayfinding abilities
  • The No GPS Challenge

Resources and tools mentioned:


Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:33] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re having a great day. And, if you’re celebrating, then I hope you are all set for Christmas. And if you’re not, then I hope that you’re at the very least going to enjoy a few days off to rest and relax, or travel, or spend time with family and friends, all without the distraction of work hanging over your head.

[00:00:57] I myself am going to be doing all of these things this year. I have a few more days left of my current freelance contract, and then I will be enjoying a much needed break. I’m heading off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in the new year, which I’m very, very excited about, and only slightly scared about. But, in an effort to be organised, I have been recording and editing all of January’s podcast episodes over the last few weeks. So don’t worry, you’ll still be able to get your Digital Diet Podcast fix in 2024, while I’m somewhere up a mountain trying to breathe, or on a beach trying to recover, hopefully.

[00:01:36] And I can’t lie, it’s been intense trying to get it all ready and scheduled to happen while I’m away. I guess that’s the blessing and the curse of being your own boss. You can take breaks when you want to, for however long you want to, but when it’s just you, you also have to plan meticulously to keep things running smoothly in your absence. So, I for one, will definitely be enjoying that break when it finally comes. But before we get there, like a lot of people, this year I will be spending Christmas with my family. And our tradition is that we always get together at my parents’ house. My mum makes an absolutely cracking Christmas dinner and it’s always really nice just to be together, often ending in some kind of wine/ food coma that lasts right through to Boxing Day.

[00:02:21] And I’m particularly excited this year because I was away for Christmas last year in Colombia. So, it’s actually been two whole years since I’ve been with all of my family. Plus, we’ve also had some new additions to our family this year. So, it’s a first Christmas for my niece, and my nephew, who is now three, is really starting to understand what Christmas is all about. So it’s always really lovely to watch the magic of Christmas through the eyes of kids. He’s been telling me about how he wants to dress up as Santa, and how he’s going to have the beard, but he’s not going to have the big belly. It’s been really, really sweet to watch.

[00:02:57] So, come Christmas Eve, I will be packing my bags and driving home for Christmas, as in the famous Chris Rea Christmas song, which is actually one of my favourites. And so in honour of that, this episode is dedicated to anyone who is going to be doing a long drive home this year or driving off somewhere for vacation, whatever it is your plans may be. I’m going to assume that if you’re going home, you know where you’re going, so you don’t need a GPS. You don’t need to rely on Google Maps, or Waze, or whatever your map app of choice is. Maybe you put it on anyway, so that you can check for traffic on the route, or to get an estimate of how long the journey is going to take. Obviously, by knowing the most direct route, even one that changes on the fly with the traffic conditions, you can save a lot of time, and fuel, and hours of frustration being on the road. But, typically, if you know where you’re going, you don’t really need the GPS.

[00:03:51] So what about those times when you do need it? Those times when you have no idea where you’re going and you’re hoping that the GPS is going to show you the way. Because most of us rely on GPS far more than we realise. We trust it way more willingly and without question than we should, even though, like we’ve seen with other technology, it can be wrong or it can go rogue. And we’re not short on examples of this.

[00:04:15] There is a story about a 64 year-old man who is believed to have followed his GPS off of a demolished bridge in East Chicago, Indiana, killing his wife a few years ago. And we’ve even had a story where Nicaraguan troops mistakenly crossed over the Costa Rican border in 2010 and staked their nation’s flag on what they thought was rebel turf within Nicaragua, but actually turned out to be Costa Rica. And they ended up blaming that error on Google Maps. The source of the problem here is that apps don’t always have accurate data on closed or hazardous roads, or even country borders. So what looks like a logical path on your phone or on your GPS device can, in fact, be a highway to hell. But still, we trust GPS as though it’s completely 100% accurate, sometimes overriding our own knowledge or our own instincts about what it’s telling us.

[00:05:10] And it’s that same trust that led to my favourite story from all of my training and explorations into digital wellness. And it’s that story that I want to share with you today. It concerns a young man named Noel Santillan. Noel was just another 28 year-old guy from New Jersey who was looking for an adventure. He’d never travelled beyond the U. S., where he was living, and his native country of Mexico. But ever since April, 2010, when he’d watched TV news coverage of the Icelandic volcano eruption, he had set his heart on one day visiting Iceland, so that he could see the really amazing, stunning landscapes with his own eyes. And it actually took a particularly bad week in October of 2015, so a solid 10 years later, for him to finally decide to take the plunge.

[00:05:58] During that week, on Tuesday, a taxi hit his car. On Wednesday, a tree nearly fell on that same car. And then on Thursday when Noel went to his girlfriend seeking comfort, she dumped him. So in Noel’s own words, “I was heartbroken and I just wanted to get away.” And, as many of us do when we’re feeling a bit sorry for ourselves, Noel found himself scrolling through his Facebook feed and stumbled across a friend’s photo of Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon Spa. And that was all it took because four months later he was on a plane heading to Iceland’s Reykjavik International Airport, super excited about this one week adventure that he had waiting for him. When he arrived in Iceland, Noel hired a Nissan Versa and, armed with a GPS unit, he set off from the airport, in the cold and in the dark, towards what he thought was a hotel in the capital city of Reykjavik. What could go wrong?

[00:06:53] Now, admittedly, Noel was a little bit groggy from a five hour red eye flight, but other than that, he had his wits about him. And so as the sun came up and he passed all the snow covered lava rocks along the shore, like most people would, Noel just carried on following the GPS’s instructions that he thought were directing him to an address on Laugavegur Road. At some point, Noel sensed that something was a little bit off, but he made a conscious choice to trust in the GPS. After all, surely the GPS knows Iceland better than he does. And it was only when he stopped on the side of a gravel road that was pretty desolate, next to a sign for a petrol station, that this feeling that the GPS voice might be steering him in the wrong direction started to get a bit stronger.

[00:07:40] At this point, Noel had already been driving for almost an hour. But the ETA on the GPS was putting his arrival time at around 5.20pm in the afternoon, a mere eight hours later. So Noel tried to re-enter his destination into the GPS, in case it had made a mistake, but he got the same result. And again, although he did sense that something was wrong, he made the conscious choice to trust the machine.

[00:08:05] So Noel gets back on the road, and the further he drives, the fewer cars he sees. The roads get icier, all of that sleeplessness starts to catch up on him, and his brain starts to get clouded. He’s getting hungry. And Noel hasn’t set up his phone for international use, so he can’t use that to call anybody or to check what the GPS is telling him. And around 2pm in the afternoon, he finds himself on a very narrow mountain road with a steep cliff. And at that point, he knew he had been wrong to trust blindly in what the GPS was telling him. Because he was well and truly lost, which is obviously the exact thing that having a GPS is supposed to help you avoid. And by the time Noel got down this sort of hairy mountain in Northern Iceland, he finally concluded that, despite the insistence of his GPS, he wasn’t anywhere near his hotel.

[00:08:59] Now, there’s no-one else on the road, it’s very, very quiet, so he can’t flag down another vehicle and ask for directions. And so at that point, there isn’t much else for Noel to do, except continue to follow the GPS to its mysterious end destination. And that mysterious end destination was a small blue house in a tiny town. So Noel parks the car, and he gets out the car, and rings the doorbell. Nobody answers, so he rings again. And eventually a woman answers the door and begins smiling as Noel starts to tell her all about the hotel that he’s supposed to be staying at, and he gives her a printout of his reservation.

[00:09:37] Now, the small blue house is clearly not a hotel and the woman in question is clearly not a hotel employee. So, pretty understandably, she started laughing and she told Noel that this wasn’t his hotel and, not only that, he wasn’t even in Reykjavik. He was in a fishing village of about 1,300 people. on the northern coast of Iceland, about 380 km north of Reykjavik. So he’s not even a little lost, he is super lost. And the woman, whose name happened to be Sirry, pronounced exactly like the Apple assistant, although spelt slightly differently, offered to phone the hotel that Noel was supposed to be staying in for him, and she quickly figured out what had happened.

[00:10:21] The address for Noel’s hotel that was provided by Expedia, and which appeared on his reservation printout, was wrong. The hotel was on Laugavegur Road, but Expedia had accidentally spelled it with an extra “R”, so it was Laugarvegur. So after this epic journey, that is now 380 km in the wrong direction, and after a sleepless red eye flight, Noel decides to check into a local hotel in the fishing village to get a good night’s sleep, and then plans to drive to Reykjavik the next day. And in this hotel that he goes to, just as a side note, the woman at the front desk was also called Sirry. Also spelt differently, but pronounced the same as the Apple assistant, so you really, really can’t make this up!

[00:11:05] Noel gets a good night’s sleep, and then the next morning when he goes to check out, Sirry tells him that there are some reporters that want to talk to him. Apparently, the first Sirry from the little blue house had posted his story on her Facebook page the previous day and it had really quickly gone viral. A Facebook friend of Sirry’s also happened to be the editor of an Icelandic travel site, wrote a blog post all about the extraordinary and funny incident, as they called it. And very quickly, this misadventure that Noel found himself on had attracted the interest of various TV and radio journalists. And they weren’t the only ones that were interested in talking with Noel, because now everyone in the town knows about him.

[00:11:50] Some of the locals come to the hotel and they start welcoming him. They take pictures with him. One even offered him a tour of what is the local pride and joy, the Icelandic Herring Era Museum, which is devoted to the town’s biggest industry of herring fishing and it plays films on the salting process; very, very exciting! The chef in Noel’s hotel makes him the local beef stew completely on the house. And so he’s really getting a warm welcome from this village and all of its inhabitants, and he decides that he’s gonna stay on an extra night.

[00:12:25] The next day, Noel goes on TV, and he’s explaining to a reporter that he’d always found GPS to be really reliable in the past. So you can understand why he had been trusting of it on this particular trip, especially given that he’s not familiar with Iceland and its roads and its city layout. And between all of the virality of the posts on social media, and the TV slots, and the news reports on the radio, by the time Noel makes it to Reykjavik that evening, he has become a full blown sensation in the national Icelandic media, and they are dubbing him “The Lost Tourist”.

[00:13:01] He does more radio interviews and obviously, in the age of the internet, it’s not long before he’s now made international headlines. There are reports about him in the Daily Mail, on the BBC, and even in the New York Times. Everyone has picked up on this wild story. Now, the manager of the hotel in Reykjavik, who has obviously seen all of these reports about Noel being The Lost Tourist, decides that in order to make up for all the hardship and for all the lost time, that he’s going to offer him a free stay at the hotel and a meal at the fish restaurant next door.

[00:13:35] So he’s in Reykjavik and the locals there are making him feel super welcome also. They’re asking him for selfies. They’re giving him loads of free drinks and shots. And somebody even dragged him to a strip club where one of the dancers knew him by name. So by this point, you get that Noel is truly a national sensation. And, let’s be honest, if you were having your five minutes of fame, you’d probably try and max it out too. So, when the marketing manager of the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland writes to Noel and offers him a free visit, Noel of course takes him up on it and decides he’s going to head out the next day.

[00:14:11] The Blue Lagoon geothermal spas are a hugely popular tourist attraction and a very, very famous spot in Iceland, which most tourists will go and visit. So, naturally, the address came pre-loaded in Noel’s rental car’s GPS because it’s obviously the only one place that everyone who visits Iceland wants to go. So Noel follows the GPS again, without giving it too much thought, and clearly without learning from his previous mishap. And I’m not making this up, but half an hour later when the GPS told Noel that he’d arrived, he got this sinking feeling, because when he looked up where he was, there was no signs of a geothermal spa. There was just a really small lone building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, and it’s really hard to believe after this crazy escapade of going all over Iceland, but Noel is lost again.

[00:15:05] For whatever reason, the GPS has taken him to a convention centre, off of an empty road. And when he goes into the building, obviously, now that he’s a national treasure, he’s been recognised. But, the people inside were actually workers from the Blue Lagoon, who had gathered there for a meeting. So, at least he bumped into some people that could tell him where he was supposed to be going. After all of these mishaps, and after posing for a whole bunch of pictures, Noel finally succumbs to doing things the old fashioned way, and he follows directions to the Blue Lagoon that are given to him by the workers that are having their meeting in this building, in the convention centre. I.e., he follows directions from another human being.

[00:15:47] He turns off the GPS, he follows their instructions, he looks for the landmarks along the way that they say that he’s gonna pass, and thankfully, eventually, he makes it to the Blue Lagoon and he’s able to have a well-deserved dip in the volcanic mud. And as if the memory of the pain of driving so far out of the way and becoming an overnight celebrity weren’t reminder enough, the car rental agency even gifted Noel the GPS device to remember his time in Iceland by, when he went to return the car.

[00:16:17] Now, this 100% true story, as hilarious as it might be, is truly a cautionary tale. Because Noel messed up not once, but twice. And many of you are probably listening and you’re asking yourselves how and why this could happen to such an extreme extent once, never mind twice. But the truth is that we all have an automation bias, i.e., humans have a tendency to trust machines more than they trust themselves. And our routine and habitual use of GPS technology, if not our complete and total dependence on it, is doing something to our brains. There is an emerging body of research that suggests that by allowing all these devices to take control of navigation, to the extent that we ignore all the real world cues that humans have always used when they’re trying to navigate their way from one place to the next, that we’re letting our natural wayfinding abilities diminish.

[00:17:14] Humans have been studying how we navigate our physical environment for quite a long time. In the 1940s, there was a psychologist called Edward C. Tolman who studied how rats learned their way around a maze. And what he concluded was that the rats were building representations of the maze layout within their nervous systems, which function almost like a cognitive map in the brain. About 30 years later, there was a neuroscientist called John O’Keefe, who managed to locate those cognitive maps in mammalian brains when he identified what are known as place cells in the hippocampus region, and these place cells became active when the lab rats were in specific locations within the maze.

[00:17:58] And then in 2005, a pair of Norwegian neuroscientists, Edvard and May-Britt Moser, expanded on O’Keefe’s findings, and they discovered that the brain also contains what they called grid cells, which, in coordination with the place cells, enable this kind of sophisticated navigation that we have as humans. And these findings were significant because this trio was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for uncovering what is now known as our inner GPS. And that work has really profound implications, not just for our understanding of how we orient ourselves, but also for how this increasing reliance that we have on technology, and on GPS technologies in particular, might actually be undermining the system that we carry around in our own brains.

[00:18:49] There is research that shows that people that frequently navigate complex environments the old fashioned way, by identifying landmarks and paying attention to their surroundings, literally grow their brains, and the best example of this is a London taxi driver. So, traditional London black cab drivers have to take a test called The Knowledge, where they literally learn the streets of London and how to navigate them. They don’t use GPS, or they weren’t supposed to. It’s not the same as being an Uber driver or a Bolt driver. You literally had to learn everything and memorise it and take a test to become a London black cab driver.

[00:19:28] And a neuroscientist called Eleanor Maguire at UCL University in London has used Magnetic Resonance Imaging, so MRIs, to study the brains of London taxi drivers and what she found was that their hippocampi increased in volume and developed more neuron dense grey matter as they memorised the layout of the city. So remember this is the region where all of those place cells and grid cells are. You’re literally expanding and growing your brain by learning how to navigate and memorising complex environments. And so it’s not that hard to see that, if you navigate purely by using GPS, you’re not going to get any of these benefits.

[00:20:09] And if you compulsively use mapping technology, you might even be putting yourself at a greater risk for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Because when you navigate with GPS, as I said, your natural ability to find your way and your spatial knowledge starts to decline. You don’t build those cognitive maps and so your hippocampus starts to shrink and it becomes smaller and becomes weaker. It’s another one of those “use it or lose it ” kind of scenarios. If you’re not using your grid cells, your place cells, eventually your brain is going to figure out that, in order to keep things running efficiently, to prune away things that are not being used.

[00:20:46] So, today’s cautionary tale is obviously to not blindly trust your GPS. But, if you’re wondering more generally how you can maintain your natural wayfinding ability and keep your brain from shrinking, then it’s this. Go old school and use a map or printed directions that you look at before you set off on your journey, and then pay attention to all the landmarks and the landscape around you as you’re driving. You are able to orient yourself based on memories of a print map because you develop a larger perspective of an area. And there’s this principle called active encoding that means that you’ll only gain spatial orientation knowledge, when spatial information is encoded and transformed or memorised during a wayfinding activity.

[00:21:33] So it’s not possible to have active encoding, if the first time you’re navigating a route is using a GPS. You are not actually paying attention to anything. You’re not paying attention to landmarks, you’re not paying attention to the landscape and getting a sense of the space. So nothing’s being encoded and memorised in your brain. So you need to do a print map based navigation of a route, or you just need direct experience of doing it, maybe you have to get lost once to know how to not get lost again, if you want to start developing and preserving your wayfinding ability. And it’s because of this direct experience and doing this primary navigation before the advent of GPS, that you can likely rely on yourself to drive yourself home or to drive to people’s houses that you used to frequently visit in the past before GPS became such a big part of your lives, without using GPS.

[00:22:23] But of course if you keep using GPS, which doesn’t require you to encode or memorise anything about your navigational journey, your spatial orientation knowledge is just going to become poorer and poorer over time. And if you want to know a bit more about this subject, I’m obviously not an expert in this particular topic, there’s also a great book by the Harvard Professor John Edward Huth called, The Lost Art of Finding Our Way. Professor Huth teaches an undergraduate class on primitive navigation techniques, but the book makes a really strong case for learning how to get where you need to go, simply by paying attention to the environment around you, so it’s a good read and can really help you start to understand why preserving your wayfinding ability is so important.

[00:23:10] That’s it for today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed the story of The Lost Tourist as much as I did. It still really makes me laugh to this day, every time I read it or every time I hear about it, I still think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever heard. Your challenge for this week is to see if you can navigate somewhere without using GPS. Maybe it will be home for the holidays, maybe it’s to a little holiday party or a gathering, wherever it is, just see if you can get there without any help from Google Maps, or Waze, or Apple Maps, or whatever you’re used to using. Look up the directions and try to memorise them before you head out. I’m not expecting you to magically be able to navigate your way around your town or city, but once you’re on route, try not to look up the way. Even if you get a little bit lost, see if you can ask someone for directions rather than being tempted to go back into one of those navigation apps.

[00:24:04] And, as always, I’m curious to know how you get on. Did you make it to your destination in one piece? Did you find that navigating without the use of GPS caused you to take more notice of your environment and the landmarks that you were passing? Did you get lost? And if you got lost, how many times did you get lost? And did you have to stop to ask for directions? The place to tell me all about your experiences and what you learned, and to discuss the episode is in The Digital Diet Lounge, my dedicated community space for all things digital wellness. I will put a link to it in the show notes along with a link to Professor Huth’s book, and you can find the show notes over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach/com/026.

[00:24:50] Next week, it’s the final podcast episode of 2023, which is crazy to me. For those of you that don’t know, I started this podcast close to the start of the year and, even though I had a little bit of a hiatus in the middle of the year, I’m actually really proud that I will have put out 27 whole episodes by the end of this year. It is by far the longest running of my many podcasting efforts over the years. And I just wanted to say, thank you for listening. I’m really enjoying sharing this digital wellness journey with you all and, from all the lovely feedback that I have received, it’s really also great to know that what I’m sharing is giving some of you a new perspective on the role of technology in your lives, and helping you to navigate this wild and ever-changing digital age that we’re all living through, for a better tech life balance.

[00:25:42] So thank you so much for listening, I really appreciate it. I appreciate every single one of you. And if you are celebrating Christmas, then I hope you have the loveliest time. My final sign-off tip for Christmas is just lay off the technology. Be with your family and friends this year. Even if you’re not celebrating, just take these few days to have a time out and be present with yourself and with your loved ones, because you won’t get that time back. And I promise you that those moments and those memories are more important than whatever is going on on your phone or your computer. It can wait.

[00:26:18] So I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and, as always, I know that you’re busy and that your time is incredibly valuable, so I want to say thank you for choosing to spend a little bit of your day with me, and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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