“Some people always get lost; others have an innate sense of direction. The difference lies in their brains.”
My husband had been driving for two hours when we stopped at a McDonald’s. We used the restrooms, loaded the kids up with Happy Meals, and he asked if I could drive. He wanted to take a quick nap. He woke up one hour later as I was pulling into the same McDonald’s. This was before the days of GPS, and I had driven in a complete circle.
When I tell people I have no sense of direction, I’m not exaggerating. Years ago my four-year-old took my hand and said, “Not that way, Mommy. This way.” We were leaving the pediatrician’s office, and I was headed toward the wrong exit.
My first week of college, I was either late for classes or missed them entirely. The university campus was a perplexing labyrinth of buildings and greenspace, impossible to negotiate without leaving the dorm early enough to allow for “getting lost” time.
With the advent of GPS (Global Positioning System) my life changed for the better. I navigate with more confidence and get lost less often. But GPS can mess up, and I’m worse than a blind-folded person in a maze when I’m meandering through the halls of a hospital.
Some people always get lost
I always believed my brain was wired differently. People said things like, “Just pay attention” or “Learn to read a map.” But maps were bewildering and paying attention wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I still got lost. Moving to a new area was a challenge if I ventured more than two blocks from home.
Then several studies confirmed what those of us who are directionally challenged have always suspected. There’s a reason some people have more difficulty navigating the environment, and it has to do with the brain.
“Some people always get lost; others have an innate sense of direction. The difference lies in their brains.” Susan Kuchinskas, author of The Chemistry of Connection
The Woman who Got Lost in her Neighborhood
Researchers at the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia documented the first case of a patient who, without any apparent cognitive impairment or brain damage, was unable to find her way through her own neigborhood. The study, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, is the first documentation of what scientists have named developmental topographagnosia (or topographical disorientation).
The researchers used a variety of tests to assess the activity in the brain of their case study, a 43-year-old, left-handed woman (I happen to be left-handed, too). From the age of 6, she had panicked whenever her mother disappeared from sight. As a teenager, every time she left home by herself, she got lost and relied on friends to accompany her places.
Currently employed, she has no problem distinguishing left from right or recognizing familiar landmarks. But she follows a straight route to her office, then follows the exact same route home. She gets lost if she deviates even the smallest amount.
When she discovered her office was relocating, she sought help that eventually led her to take part in The Brain Research Center’s neuropsychological evaluations that included functional magnetic resonance imaging. Researchers compared her MRI results with the results of healthy control subjects as they navigated through a virtual city using three-dimensional gaming software.
She performed significantly worse than the controls, taking much longer (over 30 minutes compared to their 11 minutes) to form a cognitive map of the virtual environment. Unlike the control subjects, she showed no increase in activity of the hippocampus.
Brain Function and Sense of Direction
The hippocampus, a structure of the brain that is important in memory function, contains special neurons called grid cells and place cells that seem to create a cellular map of the places we’ve been and the routes we’ve taken.
“Place cells identify where you are, while grid cells remind you of the spatial relationship of this place to other places you’ve been,” according to Dr. S. Ausim Aziz, a neurology specialist in Philadelphia.
While place cells are located in the hippocampus, grid cells are in the entorhinal cortex, a region adjacent to the hippocampus. These grid cells have been referred to as the brain’s GPS system.
In an effort to discover more about how these signals work together, research scientists at the University College of London scanned the brains of 16 men and women as they played a computer game that tested their navigational abilities. The virtual environment included a square courtyard with a landscape on each wall and a unique object in each corner. The brains of the participants were scanned as they viewed the environment and answered questions about where different objects were located.
Tests confirmed we have an “inner compass” that readjusts as we navigate. Scientists observed that the brain scans of those who performed well in the simulation exhibited more neuronal activity in certain areas of the brain.
When people navigate through an environment, they utilize complex cognitive skills involving memory, attention, perception and decision making. Using spatial memory, a person creates a mental map of the environment. It’s the ability to create and read these mental maps that enables navigation without getting lost.
Simon Makin writes in Scientific American, “Interestingly, the more consistent the participants’ goal-direction signals were, the better they were able to correctly recall in which direction the target objects lay, potentially offering a brain-based explanation for differences in navigational ability.”
If You Don’t Use it You Lose it
If the ability to navigate our environment successfully is a product of brain activity, is there any hope for those of us who are directionally-challenged? Studies appear to show there is.
One study found that the hippocampi of experienced London tax drivers were significantly bigger than those of regular people. There was a strong correlation between the size of the hippocampus and the amount of experience on the job. The longer a taxi driver stayed on the job, the larger the hippocampus.
The flip side of this was a study revealing that older adults who habitually used GPS showed less activity and volume of gray matter in the hippocampus. In other words, “If you don’t use it you lose it.” The University of British Columbia study showed that small increases in hippocampal activity were detected following intense training sessions. The 43-year-old directionally-impaired woman could learn and use a cognitive map after intensive training.
How We Can Improve Sense of Direction
These studies lead many to believe that biology doesn’t have to be destiny. With increased exercise, the right foods and intentional effort, we can improve our brain function and sense of direction.
An Australian-led study examining the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain showed that while exercise had no effect on total hippocampal volume, it significantly increased the left region of the hippocampus. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, with improved spatial memory. Some doctors also hypothesize that eating foods rich in antioxidants helps brain function.
As a person who groans when my GPS instructs me to go “East” instead of left, or worse, hits a dead zone and loses a signal, I’ve learned to rely on other strategies for not getting lost.
If I’m traveling somewhere unfamiliar, I map out a route ahead of time and study it to get a general feel for the area. Paying closer attention to landmarks and verbalizing to myself have paid big dividends. Verbal cues are easier for me than visual ones, so if I say, “I’m turning left at the red house,” I remember the landmark.
I also use verbal prompts to help me remember where I park. Saying out loud, “I’m one row down from the Target garden entrance,” results in instant recall when I head back to my car.
I was gratified the other day when my husband and I were traveling to a friend’s house in another town and he turned down the wrong street. We disagreed about how to get back on the correct route, and it turned out I was right. My efforts to improve my sense of direction were working. I had created a mental map of the area, paid attention to landmarks, and I knew turning left instead of right would get us to our destination.