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.