Last weekend I got lost twice, once going to and then coming from a local bookstore that I’ve been to several times. I only travel out of town in cases of rare necessity. My ability to get lost defies the assistance of MapQuest and the like. The timing of my adventure couldn’t be better. It was the event that tipped the scales in favor of rats vs. the promised glowing fish from my last article.
I knew as soon as I saw the link to “A Sense of Where You Are” on Jay Lake ‘s Link Salad, that I had to explore the topic here. The article discusses two doctors, May-Britt and Evard Moser. The husband and wife team direct the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience and Centre for the Biology of Memory which is a neuroscience research center at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Under their direction, the center has become known for the discovery of grid cells. The cells help rats know where they are, remember where they’ve been, and understand where they are going.
“The scientific goal of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience is to advance our understanding of neural circuits and systems. By focusing on spatial representation and memory, the investigators hope to uncover general principles of neural network computation in the mammalian cortex.” (Wikipedia Kavli stub article)
My husband is very good at finding his way around our city and reaching destinations without getting lost. My parents are too. In fact, I couldn’t remember a single time that we got lost on road trips as a kid. I decided to call my mom and fact check my memory against her’s.
Mom told me that Carol is more like me. She has difficulty placing the city, county, and state on the map in her mind without one in front of her. I just hadn’t known Mom was her co-pilot for our road trips back when we were kids. Mom then reminded me of Kittery, Maine.
We’d been house hunting in the great state of Maine, and Kittery was one of few towns that a motel that allowed you to take dogs inside. We always stayed there a few times while going up and down the state. When Carol and I would go out foraging for local take out, we got lost. Often. I remember crossing a bridge that meant you were leaving Maine and going into New Hampshire. The roads were confusing to us, and somehow we kept making the same mistakes. It was scary at first but funny after a while. it turned into Groundhog Day – the you aren’t from around here version. I had a good laugh when Mom brought up the movie. That is exactly how it felt.
It got me thinking about how Bill Murray’s character learned the layout of town and the timing of the events of the day. Rats in these experiments become familiar with their mazes and will often return to where they found or stored food even with their sense of smell taken out of the equation. (Researchers apparently put food under the maze to mask where it might be in the maze.) It isn’t just rats; squirrels and birds also remember where they put their food. I have no link for the squirrels. I have a friend that could attest to this: something about flower pots and peanut shells. I am not sure I recommend that you ask her, though.
Rats also know how to get out of a flood. I’ve seen it in movies and read it in books countless times. In times of disaster, you follow the rats out. There is a test that demonstrates this, Morris water navigation task.
In reading about Spatial memory I began to understand some of the reasons behind my uncanny ability to get lost anywhere. The added layers of sensory input, echoes of previous trips that went to nearby locations (which blur landmarks, boundaries and my association to them), the distracting traffic and receiving imput from a passenger who is a little challenged herself with this at times (the overlay of routes she’s taken with others does this to her) all work together to confuse the Grid cells that create my Cognitive map. At least, this is the theory I am going with after the research I’ve been doing for this article.
Maybe with my brain sorting through data in unorganized, rapid succession I get gridlocked. No, that isn’t a scientific term, but maybe it is coming. Speaking of gridlock, some scientists have tested taxi cab drivers in virtual settings. Hello, The Matrix! They found out that these spacial memory experts are better at recall of this nature and worked to understand why. In another study, a virtual taxi driving game was used to further analyze this sense of direction while testing to see if stimulation of this memory area in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex (EC), while learning, makes the memory stick. The entorhinal cortex is one of the first areas affected Alzheimer’s Disease causing patients to suffer the loss of spacial memory very early in the progression of the disease. This research, Memory Enhancement and Deep-Brain Stimulation of the Entorhinal Area, might tie into ways to counteract those effects.
Here are some random thoughts I had regarding this topic:
I wonder if my inability to accurately translate dance moves I see to ones produced by my body has any relation to my frequent adventures in getting lost. Spacial memory is also in charge of movement. Does this explain why I can’t dance?
Is the memorizing technique, Method of loci, more difficult to use for those of us with a poor sense of direction?
Are we more or less likely to notice when things are rearranged at home or work because it upsets our landmarks and boundaries that we rely so heavily upon even in these familiar places? I know it leaves me feeling off kilter.
Do grid cells, cognitive maps, and spacial memory tie into animal migration and navigation? Some animals are born with an understanding of where they should be headed when they get older. Elephants remember where their ancestors are buried. So are there genetic markers that lead the hippocampus to develop this understanding? How does this factor into their social learning?
Consider what might happen if scientist found a way to tinker with this in animals. Imagine being able to create natural psychological boundaries for packs of wolves, the selling point being they would be kept off the farmland or ranches and kept in their sanctuaries. We have bears that keep coming into Greensboro. It is a little exciting and unexpected. Local wildlife authorities just tranquilized a bear that has been here twice now. He is tagged and they know this for certain. What if there was a way to steer him clear of this danger before someone decides he is just going to keep coming back and should be shot? Say a nanobot-sized thing could be put in the drinking water of a herd, and the nanobots could wind up in the brains of a herd of moose and steer them clear of say the busier highways or cities so that as they travelled they would face less peril.
In Stephen King’s Cell the not-zombies seem to flock and seem to migrate. I wonder if the heart of that fictionalized action could also be based in the hippocampus as the non-zombies still possess their motor skills.
We have GPS systems at our finger tips. Will this memory exercise become stale for us? Five generations out from now, will we only be able to travel with the aid of technology. Will we lose our sense of direction?
And just for fun because I enjoy this series and it is remotely related: Tattoo Typos, Senses, Posters and Bad Movies – A Vlogbrothers YouTube Post