Lost cause: Why do some people lack a sense of direction?

June 27, 2018

Could you get lost in a paper bag? Some of us have no “inner MapQuest.” We have such a poor sense of direction that one wrong turn can take us off the beaten path for hours.

Why can’t we navigate? In 2014, neuroscientist John O’Keefe won a Nobel Prize for Medicine, along with two of his students (May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser) for a study on this very subject, conducted at University College London.

The research team discovered what they called “place cells” in the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory. These place cells are activated when we go to a new area, forming a map of the environment. They combine with “grid cells” in the entorhinal cortex— which is next to the hippocampus—to tell us where we are, in relation to where we started out. In addition, the University College London researchers found a third type of “head-direction” cell in the entorhinal region, which fires off when we face in a certain direction.

In fact, the entorhinal cortex has been called the brain’s GPS system, based on a report on O’Keefe’s work in Scientific American. Together, these three types of specialized neurons—place cells, grid cells, and head-direction cells—enable each of us to navigate, but precisely how they do this is unclear.

What’s more, they may work differently in each of us. While our built-in compass is supposed to tell us which way we are facing—and then to provide directions on which way to turn in order to arrive at our chosen destination—if a person has a poor sense of direction, the signals are fuzzier. While the compass is supposed to readjust as a person moves through the environment, if he or she makes too many turns, the brain may not be able to keep up and may provide incorrect directions.

The researchers believe that men may have a slight directional advantage over women. Indeed, Dr. Martin Chadwick who did a follow-up study at University College London, told The Daily Mail UK, “Some studies have shown that women have a better visual memory: You can show them a scene and they will remember it better than men. Men, in contrast, can work with the geometry and rotate things in their mind better.”

Interestingly enough, the Daily Mail reported, when MRI brain scans were used to study the posterior hippocampus of candidates who were ready to take a test to qualify as London cabbies, those who had fully memorized London’s 25,000 streets and landmarks had a larger amount of gray matter in that region of the brain. The scientists think that their brains had changed in order to accommodate an internal “map” of the city, which would be used to direct them to the destinations requested by their riders.

Research contact: j.okeefe@ucl.ac.uk

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