Home > Uncategorized > At a Loss for Why You Get Lost?

At a Loss for Why You Get Lost?

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to always know where things are? No matter where they are or they’ve been, they can tell you which direction whatever they’re looking for is.  Maybe you, like me, are one of them and always feel like you have an innate sense of where you are and where you need to be going.  Then again, you could be one of those people who couldn’t find their way out of your own dorm if they’re not paying attention.  It’s always been lost on me why my friends and family never seem to know where we are, why they’re always missing turns when driving, and asking me what the cross-streets are when we walk.  Well apparently, your brain actually has the answer.  Scientists have shown that very specific regions of the brain are actually responsible for navigation and much like other ‘natural talents’ (musical and artistic ability, rationality and logical thinking, humor, strategy, etc.), it can be traced to particular source in the brain.

It’s recently been discovered that the cerebellum is far more involved in navigation than previously thought.  Previous theories placed a far greater emphasis on the hippocampus, which fabricates a cognitive “map” of the environment using specialized neurons called “place cells”.  Each place cell is activated– by visual, auditory, olfactory, and/or tactile cues– at specific locations encoded as part of the given environment and allows the brain to interact and self-locate with the external world.  However, the cerebellum also contributes to the creation of this map, but it does so by altering chemical communication between its neurons.  In doing so, the brain is able to create an effective spatial representation and allows simpler navigation.  But another important feature of the cerebellum’s role is optimal trajectory.  See, our ability to navigate relies on the potential to use these cognitive maps towards accomplishing a goal (e.g.: Get home at the end of the night, buy groceries at Whole Foods, go to class, pick up mechanical pencils at CVS).  The cerebellum has recently been shown to participate in the formation of the optimal trajectory, thanks in large to synaptic plasticity.  In essence, this the quality of neurons that are able to increase or decrease their chemical communication which is necessary in the optimization of the path toward a goal.  This, in part, give us our orientation and motivates our hippocampus to access the “map” and our cerebral cortex– involved in higher level thinking such as strategy– to plot the most effective route.  So, now at least you know how it works.  Take solace in that fact if you get lost on your way to class on Monday.




Categories: Uncategorized
  1. November 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Opposite of those who get lost easily, there is actually a small portion of the population who claim to know innately what direction they’re facing, and where magnetic north is at any time. The phenomena is called Magnetoception and only works in areas where the magnetic field is not disrupted (such as volcanic hotspots and other areas with magnetic disruptions). It would make sense from this information to deduce that at least some of our ability to know where we are must be rooted in this sense, and although only a very small proportion of people have a very good sense of it, many of us have enough of the sense to keep a general idea of where we are. Those who are developed in the sense of knowing where they are may even base other higher mental processes such as memory off of location, such as the method of loci that associates memories and facts with different locations.
    It would be interesting to see how the cerebellum functions in those who experience magnetoception, as it is considered to be a different sensory apparatus, as magnetic bones were found within the nose and eyes. Does the cerebellum in these individuals feature a more complex system for mapping and locating than in individuals with no natural compass?

  2. November 6, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    Some two years ago, my dog was spending the weekend at my grandparents’ farm while myself, my brother, and my parents were enjoying a family ski trip in Colorado. My grandmother let him out into the yard, planning to follow behind, when she became distracted with a phone call. For the first time in his life, Boone Buttons wandered off. When I received the phone call later that evening reporting that the family pet had gone missing, I proceeded to orchestrate such a massive guilt trip that my parents agreed to cut the vacation short by two days. After all, it had been snowing for several days in New Jersey, and my dog had never before spent the night outdoors.

    My family drove from the airport directly to my grandparents’ house, where we would conduct a two-day search of the surrounding woodland. Even with the help of flashlights, neighbors, and the local fire department, our efforts proved entirely fruitless. We eventually wrapped up the search in defeat, clinging to the hope that someone would find the dog and call the telephone number printed on his collar.

    We returned home to find Boone Buttons lounging on the couch of the living room under a blanket, having apparently burrowed through the snow in the back yard and through his dog door. Scattered around the floor were several bags of potato chips that he had stolen from the pantry.

    At some point during the two days that we spent combing the woods for his paw prints, he had completed the seven mile trek between the farm and my house. Even if I had been equipped with a GPS system, I’m unsure as to whether I would have been able to conquer the same bitter weather and hilly terrain.

    It seems as though sense of direction is something more innate than we give it credit for. After all, geese seem to have little difficulty finding their way south during the winter, and ecologists have documented the tendency of turtles to return to their place of birth each and every year during their adult lives. Other dogs have been reported to travel as far as 100 miles in order to reunite with their masters. Me? I can still barely find my way back home from the Metro station.

  3. November 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    Along with those possessing magnetoception, certain populations use only cardinal directions to communicate spatial relations. For example, a dance teacher may tell their student to move their foot a little to the west or when giving directions, someone might say “walk north about three blocks and turn east on 19th”. In these cultures, they also seem to have an innate sense of direction as they are still able to identify the cardinal directions at night when there is no sun, in other locations where markers are different and the sun’s movements are often different, and even blindfolded. Because their communication depends upon it, it seems these cultures may have adapted a way maintain awareness of non-egocentric directions in all circumstances, perhaps even mirroring magnetoception. I too would be curious to see how the cerebellum plays a role here or whether this is a function that is more developed in language centers of the brain such as Wernicke’s and Broca’s Areas.

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