compass human navigation

Behold the human homing pigeon | Day 127

I have a friend who is really good at navigating – to the point where it seems that he has a map built into his brain, and is quite smug about it, too. On top of that, he is always amazed when I admit that I can’t tell the cardinal directions when I’m walking down the street, or how one part of the city relates to another in terms of absolute directions. No amount of “the sun helps me figure it out, surely you can do it, too” would convince me that there is not some profound neurological difference between the ways he and I perceive the world.

Now I’m pretty sure I was right about the neurological part.

In order to plot a course to your goal, you need to know not only which direction your are facing, but also which direction you will need to face as you navigate towards your destination. A team of scientists at UCL in London have now determined that the brain area responsible for both these tasks may well be where the human ‘compass’ is located.

The ability to navigate lies within the entorhinal cortex, nestled deep in the bottom part of the brain. This area serves as a hub in the memory and navigation network of our brains. The UCL researchers asked volunteers (16 in total) to navigate a simple computer-simulated environment while their brains were being scanned with fMRI.

brain entorhinal region
The entorhinal region of the brain found to be responsible for our ‘homing signals’ | (Courtesy of Hugo Spiers, UCL)

“We were surprised to see that the strength and consistency of brain signals from the entorhinal region noticeably influenced people’s performance in such a basic task,” said Dr Hugo Spiers, the lead author of the study.

In other words, the better the signals coming from your navigational hub, the better you are at keeping track of the direction you just faced to the direction you need in order to find your goal. If you take one turn too many and suddenly get lost in the process, the researchers speculate it might be due to the fact your brain has failed to keep up.

Now, I wonder whether people who often get lost could somehow boost the signal from their internal compass?

3 thoughts on “Behold the human homing pigeon | Day 127”

  1. When reading about Ithquil (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/24/utopian-for-beginners) I found this: “For example, the Australian Aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t use egocentric coördinates like “left,” “right,” “in front of,” or “behind.” Instead, speakers use only the cardinal directions. They don’t have left and right legs but north and south legs, which become east and west legs upon turning ninety degrees.” If true, I suspect speakers of the language to be very good indeed at internal compass-ing.

    1. You’re right about that! I was taught in a linguistics class about the language differences that provide differences in perception of the environment, and the cardinal/absolute directions one is a great example.

  2. Pingback: It's Day 366+

Leave a Reply

Your email is perfectly safe with me.