Weathervane showing four cardinal directions


You can use psychology for navigating. But it occurs to me that if we analyze our spatial skills only as they work in our world, we might miss something. Our spatial skills–navigation, for example–evolved in our earliest days as a species, maybe 200,000 years ago. Some of us were driven out of Africa by rapid climate changes and maybe attracted to migrating herds of food on the hoof. Our newly huge brains contained cognitive tools that guided us right up to Lewis and Clark, but now the contrast with GPS guidance is jarring.

Like the surveyor George Washington, Lewis and Clark had compasses and prehistoric brains to guide them. Now we still have those prehistoric brains but we don’t need compasses. Finding North isn’t important any more except to mark the top of a map.

Now our wayfinding is a matter of threading our way through mass transit or finding the right one-way street to a parking garage, then locating the hospital or law office two streets away, up three levels.

My point? It’s that our modern plight isn’t helped by caveman navigation. You could try a few of the manuals below to help you find a place to watch your next big-city fireworks display (after throwing away your smartphone), and best wishes. If you live in a smart city, there is no wilderness: boring and ultra-controlled, maybe, but also safe and efficient and, someday, maybe equitable.

Aids to navigation are plentiful. Some examples include the following.

A sense of direction is not a single skill. Spatial perception, spatial memory and spatial reasoning vary a lot in different people. The difficulty that Sharon Roseman has with finding her way may stem from an inability to form cognitive maps. Others share her problem, called developmental topographical disorientation, though spatial cognition may be impaired in numerous ways, reflecting the complicated scaffold that supports such skills.

For example, one patient who became famous for his amnesia was Henry Molaison, known during his life by his initials. One aspect of H.M.’s (Henry Molaison’s) behavior that is rarely discussed was his inability to update his navigation skills. After his surgery he changed houses and thereafter could never direct psychologists to his new home after a day at the lab for testing. As one article described it, “He could remember how to get to the house in which his family previously lived, but not to the one to which they moved ten months before the operation was performed.”

His epileptic seizures may have accounted for his inattention to the route before his surgery, but he was unable to learn it after the surgery, either.

One way to find out what our memory is supposed to be doing is to think about what the world was like when our kind of human, Homo sapiens, appeared, about 200,000 years ago. There were other hominin branches, and we just learned of another one virtually yesterday, but we have no way of knowing if they held any secrets to our memory.

We know that we had to make long treks through a varying landscape–or maybe a smellscape. Long before humans appeared, mammals had evolved an olfactory system tied to memory more than any other sense. Sensation from the olfactory bulb was distributed immediately to the piriform cortex and hippocampus. In particular, smell was linked to spatial memory for navigation, and spatial memory was tied to the hippocampus.

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So let’s suppose we evolved the sense of smell to tell us where we are. That sounds funny today*, but we still use our noses for navigation when we’re looking for a building’s bathrooms or cafeteria, and a good navigator is likely to be a good smeller, too! So we posit an olfactory spatial hypothesis**.

Next, how is this important for memory? Why do smells evoke memories with such vividness? Here I can lay aside my quill pen and refer you to some short videos, which are duplicative:

The videos all make the point that olfaction is the only sense that has a close connection with the memory systems of the hippocampus. This is an adaptive outcome of evolution. Our smell-memory navigation system suffers mistakes now and then, but it’s good enough to keep us alive until we get old.

Did H.M. suffer impairment of his memory for odors? Certainly, but unfortunately his surgery damaged his olfactory cortex as well as the medial temporal lobe, making inferences about olfactory navigation impossible.

*But remember those amazing stories about lost pets who found their way home?

**You can find Jacobs’ own descriptions here, there and yonder.

Signpost pointing "this way" and "that way"

BIO: Genetics may play an important role, though their contribution to sex differences in navigation is hard to define except in uncommon developmental anomalies. Men are famous for their refrigerator blindness (that’s a tongue-in-cheek article) stemming from a preference for compass directions over landmarks. The stereotypical male only knows the spatial coordinates of the butter in the fridge, not that it lies next to the ham, which is a landmark. This is not to be taken too seriously, considering the variation within each sex,  although landmark agnosia can be serious and there are some who look on sex differences in direction-finding as a reflection of neurophysiology or endocrinology or even prehistoric social roles or, you know, fingers or style.

We should also realize that the hippocampus isn’t just a recorder of memories but a spatial locator as well. Spatial memories and navigation evoke similar patterns of activity in the hippocampus.

Memory is not a box for our experiences but active associations among different kinds of experience. When we read about the division between memories that we can easily describe, called declarative memories, we should realize that they are not walled off from memories we have trouble describing verbally, called procedural memories. In fact the declarative memories that store our everyday experiences, called episodic memories, are often combined with our spatial memory for places we’ve visited.

Episodic memories are tied to place. That’s the same as saying that episodic memory is spatial. We use space to remember things.

Neurons that record autobiographical memories, which are episodic, also record places. The hippocampus forms both episodic and spatial memories.

How do we accomplish this? O’Keefe and the Mosers won the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine by showing how hippocampal place fields and grid cells in the nearby entorhinal cortex supply place markers in the brain that tell us our location and let us know how far we have traveled. Once a rat has learned a location, the hippocampus continues to flash reminders when it re-enters the place (also this) or block unwanted memories (research here).

PSYCHO: While modern humans rely more on vision than smell, our sensitivity to spatial relationships remains a cardinal feature of our memory. Do you ever make mistakes in remembering where, and how far, or how big something was? Even if you rarely forget an appointment or a name or why you went into a room, we goof up directions and dimensions over and over. My guess is that there’s a limit: We rarely goof ourselves to death, thanks to the way memory evolved.

Occasionally psychologists test navigation with mazes for people, though onscreen tests of spatial reasoning like the Shepard rotation task are better known and others like the Menger sponge puzzle, are more convenient.

Memory is not about the past; it’s about the future” (45 min., 29 sec.), about “constructing spatially coherent scenes” (47 min.), at least as far as episodic memory is concerned. Some of us seem better at reading maps than others, even as cultures, but apparently we all make maps like we use writing, to stretch beyond the limits of memory. Unfortunately for divers and astronauts, our cognitive maps are quite flat, although if pilots stay on the ground they still do better than the rest of us, except maybe for cabbies.

The nature of cognitive maps remains a controversial topic. Are they mental images of maps or merely an aspect of scene perception? Do they even exist? The term is still used too broadly to relate them to mental images or even to tell how much people who cannot form mental images, who make up two percent of the population, contribute to the incidence of spatial disorders.

SOCIAL: Giving directions definitely varies from person to another. Culture is one factor: Giving directions in Nicaragua or Japan is no picnic, though technique helps (research here).

Our sense of direction varies among individuals, sexes and cultures. It is hard for a Westerner to grasp the subtle navigational skills of Pacific Islanders in past centuries, for example, or for anyone to find their way across some places.

Does using a GPS threaten these abilities? Will using high-tech direction finders weaken our native abilities to navigate? The first effect of GPS systems may be to “medicalize” poor navigation. Just as clocks have put a premium on good timekeeping and cut us off from relying on the sun alone, GPS systems not only help us but make us expect perfection in arriving where we want to be. One thing leads to another: Without clocks we would not have the GPS, and without the GPS, where would we be?

Like a clock, a GPS has no regard for our health or our proneness to errors in specifying exactly where we want to go. Unlike cognitive maps, the GPS has not evolved to keep us alive. Even worse, there is speculation and some evidence that relying on a GPS may rob us of some of our navigational ability through disuse, by destroying our need to explore.

In other words, there may be costs to balance the obvious benefits of GPS.

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