We don’t always use a map or app to get around. Often, we rely on our brains to navigate. A new study shows which parts of the brain will participate in this.
Following a map isn’t the only time people test their skills at navigation. We find routes all the time, whether it’s from one end of the house to another or to school and back. How does your brain get you to your destination? Two brain areas work together, a new study finds. One taps your memory to figure out where you are. Another uses that information to plan the path ahead. This discovery could help scientists one day design spaces for people who have difficulty finding their way.
The word “memory” makes people think of the past. But without it, no one could plan for the future. This is especially true in navigation, says Amir-Homayoun Javadi. He’s a neuroscientist — someone who studies the brain — at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. He and his colleagues wanted to figure out how the brain finds different routes to a destination.
The scientists recruited 24 volunteers for a two-hour tour of Soho. It’s a neighborhood in London, England. Guides led the participants around, pointing out landmarks, book shops, cafes and other points of interest. These might help the volunteers later find their way. As they pointed things out, the guides also told the participants which direction they were facing — north, south, east or west.
One day later, the volunteers came to the lab and lay down inside a machine that does functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This brain scanner tracks the flow of blood in the brain. That blood carries oxygen. If a part of the brain is very active, it will need more oxygen. So more blood will move toward it. Scientists therefore use blood flow as a way to pinpoint which brain areas are working hard during a task.
As the participants lay in the machine, they saw 10 videos of the neighborhood they toured the day before. In five of them, they “traveled” without having to find their own way. For the rest, they had to use a computer to navigate…