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Question Your World: How Do We Understand Directions?

So to get to this site you had to navigate your way here. The way we get around in the real world also has a lot to do with our ability to understand where we are and where we’ve been. So, why do we understand directions? Learn more in this week’s Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia.

The ability to navigate is one of the key aspects in humanity’s story. We’ve been able to inhabit every continent on this planet,  we’ve built modes of transportation that connect the world faster, and we’ve even started to map out our part of the cosmos. Humanity has been giving directions for a long time now. Initially we had to give directions for immediate needs: The water’s that-a-way! The lion’s over there! Go the other way! …and so on. Later we started to give directions using landmarks, sometimes we still do this like: Take a left after the red brick house and go all the way till you get to the gravel lot, then make a right and go straight till you see the party...etc. Well, eventually we developed more intricate road networks, detailed maps, and more recently added GPS into our lives. All of this is hinged upon the concept that we understand spacial direction and a sense of where we are. 

Recently a collaborative study between Drexel, UNC, Thomas Jefferson, and UCLA has stumbled upon something in our brain that shed some light on how we can manage to handle directions. These scientists just ran across a never before identified type of cell in the brain, one that’s associated specifically with navigation and direction. They’ve aptly named this newly discovered find the Grid Cell. These grid cells were identified by studying subjects that were playing a navigational based video game while their brains were being monitored.  Brain activity would light up in certain spots on the brain in never-before studied areas thus revealing the purpose and function of the brain's navigational ability.

The discovery of these Grid Cells is a monumental find as we piece together the working components of our brain. The practical application of this discover could pave the way for a better understanding of the detrimental impacts of Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding how our brain processes directions could perhaps even lead the way to someday being able to implant directions directly into the brain. Imagine a world in which we’d never get lost! Perhaps that would usher in the extinction of backseat driving?

Stay tuned for more on this as scientists dig into the nitty gritty of these newly discovered brain cells.

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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