Where does our sense of direction come from?

It is not easy to find your way as you walk through the bakery, grandmother and nursery to get to the bank. How does our brain do it, and why are there so many differences between individuals?

Our brain calculates a vector to find its way

A big part of the concept lies in these three small words: Path integration. It is an unconscious cognitive processing that allows complex information to be condensed into simple information. This complex information is data integrated by the brain, particularly predictive, such as the motion of our feet when we walk or run, but also the visuals, such as the scrolling of the landscape and the integration of visual cues, such as routes. in. In front of the village church.

This information is integrated and condensed into a vector, our “sense of direction”. In other words, our brain takes all of this information into account and makes a calculation, the results of which allow us to know how to get home. This calculation is a type of vector addition: if we add sinuous vectors, we can find the path as the crow flies to the starting point connecting it to the endpoint.

The integration of the path is done by a type of vector calculation. Credit: Chiswick Chap / Wikimedia

Cells of place, grid and direction

Three types of cells in our brain allow us to integrate this information. The first are the so-called “place” cells, which are located in the hippocampus and which are activated when we think of a particular place. The second is called the “grid” cells in the anterhinal cortex that transmit computational displacement information to the hippocampus. Eventually, the elliptical body, a small oval structure in the center of the brain, incorporates a change in direction. The first two variants were also discovered in 2014 by John O’Keeffe, May-Brit Brazer and Edward I. Enabled Moser to receive the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine.

You don’t need a big brain to find yourself

If the calculations made seem complicated, it is also done by very small brains, especially desert ants, which can make very long paths in zig-zags and return in a straight line to anthill. All this without visual reference, because there are not many in the desert. Proof that the information is very condensed.

The journey of a desert ant to its f food from an en chi nest was 354.5 m, which would easily return to the starting point of 113.2 m, almost in a straight line. Crédits: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America / Müller.

It is also a matter of learning

Even if this path integration mechanism is innate, learning also has a role. Indeed, a study has shown that the hippocampus of London taxi drivers, who have undergone intensive training of their intelligence, is more developed than bus drivers, whose paths are always the same. There is therefore a congenital part, but training allows this ability to be improved, thus partially acquired.

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About the Author: Abbott Hopkins

Analyst. Amateur problem solver. Wannabe internet expert. Coffee geek. Tv guru. Award-winning communicator. Food nerd.

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