Your Brain on Maps

Caitlin Dempsey


What do some recent studies that look at the brain and navigation suggest? Read on to find out.

How the brain successfully navigates

As part of a larger article on the real and hypothesized effects of relying on computerized navigation systems on the mind, Alex Hutchinson looked at research on spatial cognition.  

The ability to navigate successfully can be achieved by either of two different strategies in the brain which Hutchinson explains in Global Impositioning Systems:

Iaria and McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot demonstrated in a widely cited 2003 study that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories. One is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks — creating a cognitive map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop and other destinations sit on the street grid. The other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park.

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Those that prefer one method over the over is split evenly with half of the population using cognitive mapping, and the other half using stimulus-response.  

Women tend to use landmarking in navigation

A recent study by researchers from National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City comparing routing methods by groups of men and women, found that women tend to use landmarking to remember the best routes.

The area of research that looks at the mind’s ability to map out geography, and the reverse effect of navigation experience on the development of the mind is relatively new.  

Developmental topographical disorientation

Cognitive maps are the way the brain forms a virtual representation of the environment and the term was introduced in 1948 by Edward Tolman.  Those individuals that experience  no activity in the area of brain responsible for cognitive maps are diagnosed as having “developmental topographical disorientation.”  

Spray painted white signed with a Red Cross and blue lettering that says, "You Are Here".
Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Giuseppe Iaria, an assistant professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Calgary and Jason Barton, a professor at the University of British Columbia, recently published their research on this newly named disorder in the journal Neuropsychologia.

The study:

Iaria, G., Bogod, N., Fox, C. J., & Barton, J. J. (2009). Developmental topographical disorientation: case one. Neuropsychologia47(1), 30-40.

Walking in Circles

Using volunteers strapped with GPS units, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany, tested out the innate navigational ability of hikers under multiple conditions. 

Published in the journal Current Biology, researchers Jan Souman and Marc Ernst looked at the walking pattern of nine hikers placed in the Sahara desert in Tunisia and in the Bienwald forest in Germany.  Each individual was told to walk in a straight line for several hours.

So what was the purpose of the study? Souman and Ernst wanted to test the long held believe that people tend to walk in circles when lost.  The study found that in conditions where the walker couldn’t access visual clues on direction from the sun or the moon, the trajectory tended to be circular.

The study:

Souman, J. L., Frissen, I., Sreenivasa, M. N., & Ernst, M. O. (2009). Walking straight into circles. Current biology19(18), 1538-1542.

Ability to Remember Routes Gender Based

A recent study sent groups of men and women from a Mexican village out to gather mushrooms.  Both groups were tracked with GPS units and wore heart monitors.  

Both men and women came back with an equal number of mushrooms gathered but the men expended 70% more energy and covered more ground than the women.  The women, on the other hand, used landmarking to remember the best routes and would retrace their routes to the most productive patches to gather mushrooms.

The study was led by Luis Pacheco-Cobos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City who explained the difference by stating, “These findings show that women perform better and more readily adopt search strategies appropriate to a gathering lifestyle than men.”  The study is published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.

A long-held hypothesis as to the different navigation abilities of men and women is attributed to the evolved roles of men as hunters and women as gathers dating back to the Pleistocene age.

The study:

Pacheco-Cobos, L., Rosetti, M., Cuatianquiz, C., & Hudson, R. (2010). Sex differences in mushroom gathering: men expend more energy to obtain equivalent benefits. Evolution and Human Behavior31(4), 289-297.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.