I’m wondering what it is. Some people just seem to be naturally gifted navigators. They have a great sense of direction and orientation. They instinctively know how to find their way around.

Others don’t. And it makes me wonder why that is. What are the contributing factors to a highly developed spacial navigation skills? I guess one factor might be where they grew up: did they spend most of their time indoors or outdoors? I guess being in the outdoors more helps develop a stronger sense of orientation, because you have to rely on it more. It’s just one of these “use it or lose it” mental muscles.

But there are probably other factors as well. Just how observant and present one is in their day to day.

And what else?

According to this Harvard Gazette piece titled Where we get our sense of direction our “sense of direction is generated with the help of brain cells known as head direction neurons, which do so by incorporating two main streams of information — visual landmarks and positional estimates based on self-movement.”

The visual landmark could be something as simple as the glow of an alarm clock, which is enough to refresh our internal map of the environment.

In fruit flies there are compass neurons, also known as E-PG neurons. I don’t care about fruit flies, but I guess there’s something to be learned for our own sense of orientation as well.

These compass neurons are arranged into a ring, and as the fly moves around “a corresponding “bump” of neural activity moves around the ring like a compass needle — if the fly turns 90 degrees, the bump of activity also rotates 90 degrees.”

Now this all depends on visual clues. In complete darkness the accuracy of this “needle” diminishes. But once there’s a visual clue it immediately recalibrates.

There’s more in this article, and they explain how scientists glued a fly to a pin within a floating styrofoam ball… but I lost interest, this seems to stray too far from my original question.

There’s another article in Science Focus that seems more promising: Why some people have a good sense of direction. It’s a bit dated, published in 2010, but it starts promising:

An experiment in 1980 set out to investigate the theory that people with a knack for navigation might have a sense of magnetic North, like migratory birds. A group of students at Manchester University went on a blindfolded bus journey. Half had magnets strapped to their heads while the other half wore non-magnetic brass bars.

When they were dropped off a few miles down the road and asked to estimate the direction of the university, the group wearing a brass bar were by far the most accurate, suggesting that they were guided by some ability to detect magnetic North, which was interfered with in the group with magnetic headgear. Despite this, no research has since replicated these results, so the idea of a human ability to sense magnetic North remains doubtful.

The author continues to talk that cultures which navigate without technology are generally superior navigators. I’m pretty sure if you take a 20 year old who’s accustomed to Google Maps and a 50 year old who still had to use those foldable paper maps, you’ll find that the 50 year old probably has a better sense of navigation. Which supports my “use it or lose it” theory.

The best advice the article has to offer: deliberately note landmarks and turns as you move around. This will help you build your cognitive map of an area.

Another article that ultimately was a bit of a letdown, and didn’t really provide an answer.

So a mystery it shall remain.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *