The scenario for driving my cousin to JFK Airport for a flight to Finland seemed doomed from the start. I was a newly licensed driver making my first venture away from low-traveled suburban roads in New Jersey. It was excessively hot and hazy even for August in New York City, and the car had no AC. No map in the glove compartment. Tons of traffic. Then, after I had driven less than 10 miles, the rearview mirror dropped to the floor and resisted my efforts to reposition it.
Despite these setbacks, I arrived at the terminal in a respectable 90 minutes, well in time for my cousin’s flight. Then came the drive home. My cousin would be halfway across the Atlantic before I came anywhere near my house. It took 20 minutes just to get out of the vicinity of the airport. Exits mysteriously turned into entrances that funneled me back to the Departing Flights lane. It was as if I had been ordered into a holding pattern by an overzealous air traffic controller.
Then lefts that should have been rights and rights that should have been lefts led me into landscapes with no recognizable landmarks. I began to fear that my only hope was a massive, pulsing neon arrow reading, “YOUR HOUSE THIS WAY.”
I had always suspected that I had a lousy sense of direction, and here was the confirming evidence. “This looks like the right way,” I told myself time and again as I ventured deeper into parts unknown. As the sun dipped below the horizon to further hinder my journey, I realized that my cousin could hit the tarmac in Helsinki before I pulled into my driveway in Jersey.
At the time, I didn’t consider that my inability to “get there from here” might have been genetic. But I do now, thanks to advances in brain mapping. I have learned that the brain has its own GPS system of navigational neurons consisting of grid cells and place cells. Grid cells in the cerebral cortex are activated as we move from location to location. They help us keep track of navigational cues, such as how far we are from a starting point and what turns we made during a particular route. This information is then sent to place cells in the hippocampus to promote recognition and memory of where we are and where we’ve been. Apparently the information I needed to find my way home from the airport was lost en route to my hippocampus.
Brain’s GPS Finds the Way Even Without Landmarks
Much of what we know about grid cells has come from researchers such as Dr. Joshua Jacobs, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s School of Biomedical Engineering, Science, and Health Systems. Dr. Jacobs and his research team were the first to confirm the action of grid cells in humans. In their study, they used electrodes planted deep in the brain to measure neuronal activity in subjects steering a virtual bicycle in a navigational video game. They discovered that grid cells fire in certain patterns during navigation that are then committed to memory. This memory helps us, in effect, retrace our steps even if the landmarks along the original route have been removed.
“Without grid cells, it is likely that humans would frequently get lost or have to navigate based only on landmarks,” noted Dr. Jacobs in ScienceDaily. “Grid cells are thus critical for maintaining a sense of location in an environment.” It would appear that I was not given a full-sized portion of these navigational neurons.
Use Your Sense of Direction…or Lose It?
The importance of the hippocampus in personal navigation is made clear by examinations of the brains of London taxi drivers. This part of the brain is exceptionally large in these cabbies, an apparent by-product of their need to memorize a complex web of streets and side streets (imagine an accordion folder being filled with more and more roadmaps over time). But the pathfinding skills of these drivers, as well as our own, may be in danger of extinction. Directional woes such as mine are becoming more common, due to increasing dependence on GPS systems in cars and on mobile devices.
This dependence may present a more dire scenario: greater risk of dementia. Some theorists claim that relying on automated directional devices may actually reduce the size of the hippocampus. This shrinkage in brain tissue might compromise our spatial capabilities and make us more likely to become disoriented in unfamiliar locations. As noted by McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot in The Walrus: “We can only draw an inference, but there’s a logical conclusion that people could increase their risk of atrophy if they stop paying attention to where they are and where they go.”
I finally made it home that night, after getting directions from a couple of state troopers. They laughed and laughed when I told them I had become lost on my way to New Jersey from JFK. That’s probably because I was in Connecticut, some 90 miles out of my way. Unfortunately, I didn’t know enough then to explain that I was lost because of my faulty grid cells!
Have Trouble Finding Your Way?
Here are 4 tips that may help you improve your sense of direction:
- Pay more attention en route. Concentrating more on specific landmarks and turns may help you be more familiar with the route in the future.
- Take two “views” of a place. After seeing a landmark or road, find its location on a map. This practice can help you “lock in” your memory of how you got there.
- Bulk up your hippocampus. Ramping up aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus. This conditioning may improve your ability to remember the position or location of objects and places.
- Eat right. Foods rich in antioxidants improve blood flow to the brain and enhance the memory skills you need to find your way around. Many of them are tasty, too! Good sources include apples, blackberries, chocolate, eggs, spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bright red or yellow vegetables.
Find Out More
- Alex Hutchinson, “Global Impositioning Systems: Is GPS Technology Actually Harming Our Sense of Direction?” The Walrus
- Susan Kuchinskas, “Why Do You Always Get Lost?” WebMD
- “Locating the Brain’s GPS: Human Neurons Link to Navigation in Open Environments,” ScienceDaily