The Brain as a Sat-Nav | DocFilm | DW | 17.02.2016
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The Brain as a Sat-Nav

Our brain recognizes when we enter an unknown location and performs a task we often take for granted: it navigates us. But why does spatial awareness and sense of direction differ from person to person?

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Our brain forms maps that place objects in a room in relation to others.

Animals and humans use memory and imagination to find their way around. Experiments on rats showed that the brain contains positioning cells. They display a high degree of neural activity when the animals enter a new environment. These positioning cells work together to form a kind of mental map that we can use for orientation. John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of these brain cells.

Feeling lost?

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Ann Dodd has a terrible sense of direction. Sometimes she can’t even find the way to her relatives in the same city.

A good sense of direction appears to be hereditary. As does the opposite – a rare syndrome called Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD). Those affected are unable to form mental maps and become lost even in well-known places directly surrounding them. Fortunately they show no other signs of neurological deficiency.

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Taxi driver Terry Foreman gets by in London just fine without GPS. He has a “mental sat-nav”.

Sat-navs: blessing or curse?

GPS has fundamentally changed human navigation. Many of us blindly follow sat-nav instructions without really understanding where we are or where we need to go. For the directionally-challenged they’re a godsend, but many scientists have concerns. It’s possible that a constant reliance on electronic navigation aids could be linked to an early onset of dementia. And there’s another question that’s widely discussed within the field – who has better spatial awareness, men or women?

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