No matter where I’ve been in the wilds I have never gotten lost. Sound strange? I’m not the only one! Be it in wilds that I know or that I don’t know I’ve always known what direction to go to get back to my starting point or wherever I wanted to go and this is what we might call our “internal compass” at work and there is scientific proof for such an ability.
Back in 2014 University College London conducted a study using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and found the part of the brain that tells us the direction to travel when we navigate around. The strength of the signal predicts how well we can navigate, which means, those with strong signals tend to navigate better than those with low signals.
Some people are better navigators than others but up until this study we really didn’t know why. This study showed that the strength and reliability of our inner “homing signals” vary among people and predict our navigational skills. Some people tend to get lost a lot and this is because the strength of their directional or “homing” signal is weak (like my grandfather who was forever getting lost in the wilds!).
We already know animals have brain signals that give them their direction of travel. That was uncovered in 2014 too as part of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine which was received by Professor John O’Keeffe of UCL.
The part of your brain that signals which direction you are facing is known as the “Entorhinal Region.” It’s also used to signal the direction in which you need to go to get to your desired destination. It not only tells you your direction but also tells you the direction you SHOULD BE facing in the future! For years this mechanism has been suspicioned. Dr Hugo Soiers who is an Eexperimental Psychologist at UCL used cab drivers as his first subjects in the study in London. Those cab drivers showed that the first thing they do when they work out a route is to calculate which direction they need to head in and this study showed that the entorhinal cortex is responsible for this inside our brains. Further, this study of cab drivers also revealed that the quality of the signal in our brains also determines how good someone’s navigational skills will be.
This study also showed that our internal compass readjusts as we move through different environments! For instance, as you turn left then this part of your brain should proces this shift in direction accordingly. Researchers say if you get lost it may be due to your brain not being able to keep up with and process your trek because you’ve made to many turns to quickly! (now I know grandfather’s problem lol). In short, you get lost because your brain fails to keep up with your navigation and it fails to adjust. This is also true if you simply aren’t paying attention to your surroundings.
Researchers also noted that the entorhinal region is one of the first parts of the human brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease!! The finding may also help researchers explain why people start to get lost during the early stages of this disease.
From an anthropological point of view I’d say this ability likely developed long ago in our ancient human ancestors, namely, Homo erectus who was the “great explorer.” This species had to have had a similar or the same “homing signal” more so that other hominin species more primitive. I think research like this is fantastic! And, as I’ve said in the past I don’t think it’s a matter of brain size but of how are brains and those of our AHA are/were WIRED!