None of these items would seem out of place sitting on a table, but the onion’s odor gives it a better chance of sticking in your brain. The olfactory bulb, used for processing smells, has access to areas of the brain that process emotions and learning, so we often associate smells with specific memories.
Average adults can only store about four objects at a time in their short-term spatial memory. If you have difficulty remembering where you’ve parked your car or where you left your keys, it might be because you pushed that spatial information out of your short-term memory to make room for something new.
Where Are You?
Are you as aware as you'd like to think?
Unless you're a daydreamer, you probably think of yourself as being totally aware of where you are at any given moment. But guess again. Humans' spatial awareness — your perception of objects and terrain in the environment around you, and your position relative to your surroundings — actually is more of a hit-and-miss affair. The changing world around you floods your senses with visual, aural and other information that easily could overwhelm the navigational system in your brain's parietal and frontal lobes, except that it's wired to be selective about what it focuses upon.
Your brain keeps a fix on where you are by combining information from two different sets of specialized neurons — one group that acts like a compass and orients you in space, and another that identifies key objects around you and utilizes them as landmarks. While that system works pretty effectively most of the time, the necessity of filtering sensory information down to the seeming essentials also means that you may not notice much of what exists and goes on around you.
Your Brain’s Personal GPS System
Thousands of years ago, your ancestors sometimes found themselves forced to flee wild predators or dangerous storms, and then had to find their way back to the rest of their group of hunter-gatherers, relying upon their own sense of direction. If humans hadn’t developed a keen sense of spatial awareness—that is, both location and proximity to other people—we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species. You started developing spatial awareness when you were about six months old, starting with the location of your own hands and other body parts.
By the time you were a year old, you had a pretty good idea of where your own limbs were, which gave you a reference point for starting to explore and map the world around you. Your sense of your own position and how you are moving is called proprioception, and it’s an integral part of making your way around.
In a study published in Nature in 2001, German researchers reported that much of humans’ spatial awareness seems to reside in the right side of the superior temporal cortex—basically, opposite from the language-processing area on the left. (This sets us apart, interestingly, from monkeys, whose spatial awareness is on both sides.) That area processes visual information to help us to figure out where objects are located, and where we are in space.
Your brain contains specialized "head direction cells" that function like a compass, and "place cells," which tell you where you are, based upon visual clues such as landmarks.
But other parts of the brain and other sensory organs besides your eyes also play a role in figuring out where you are and where everything around you is located. Your brain’s vestibular cortex, which processes data from the balance organs in our inner ear, also contains an internal model of gravity that helps you to predict how other objects will move under its influence.
Though most of us rely heavily upon sight, humans also can utilize their hearing to navigate their surroundings. Researchers have discovered that blind people, for example, don’t necessarily have to rely upon tapping with a cane to navigate, because they’re superior to their sighted counterparts at identifying the location of distant sounds, and actually can utilize subtle auditory cues to orient themselves to their environment to a degree comparable to those with vision.
Memory also plays a role in navigating our surroundings. In a study published in Science in 2013, researchers reported that special cells in the hippocampus area of the brain appear to "geotag" memories of events in your life, tying them to where they occurred. "You come to a location where something happened and it reminds you of an event," University of Pennsylvania psychologist Michael Kahana, one of the study’s co-authors, explained to National Public Radio. "Or you think of an event and it reminds you of the place where it happened."
How the brain makes sense of all this information is even more complicated. In an article published in the journal Neuron in 2013, University of Edinburgh researchers describe how the neurons involved in spatial awareness code your location and that of the objects around you by relaying rhythmic waves of signals. The number and strength of the signal patterns, and where they occur on the electrical wave, forms a sort of Morse code that your brain utilizes to navigate.
As your brain amasses and makes sense of all that location data, it apparently draws its own detailed mental map of the area, showing where key objects and features are in relation to you and everything else, according to a 2013 study by German researchers, who scanned the brains of subjects who looked around a room at objects. You continue to access that map of your surroundings, so that you can sense the location of things even when you’re not looking directly at them. For example, if you’re in a room and you reach for an interesting book on the shelf, your brain still remembers where the door is in relation to the bookshelf, and that the window is behind you. Another 2013 study by Austrian researchers, who studied the brain activity of rats as they navigated mazes, suggests that as you move through your surroundings, your brain is continually drawing new maps and patching them together with existing ones for continuity.
Off the Beaten Path
With all that marvelous mental gadgetry at your disposal, you’re probably wondering why you still sometimes get lost.
The problem is that navigating is a complicated, difficult job — even if you’re inside a shopping mall or some other big public building, rather than out on the ancient savanna. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s Human Factors in Geography Lab have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why students frequently lose their bearings inside the stacks of the university’s sprawling Pattee and Paterno libraries.
The ability to get around indoors, as it turns out, is influenced not just by your sense of direction or familiarity with the location, but by an array of environmental factors such as line-of-sight visibility, complexity of the building’s internal design and architectural style, and the number of possible paths to or from any given location. Scientists call the interaction of all these factors wayfaring, and it helps us not only to get to the desired location, but to more efficiently plan and travel along future routes.
According to PSU researcher Rui Li, humans learn to navigate through a two-step process. First, they develop a mental representation of the space by acquiring an object-to-object relationship. (Maps are perfect aids for this purpose.) Second, they acquire a person-to-object relationship, orienting themselves by determining their current location and the direction they’re heading.
Wayfaring technique also varies by gender, researchers have found. Men tend to be better at spatial orientation and making mental maps, while women, who tend to have better skills at working with language, tend to navigate by talking about landmarks and things that can be seen or heard. Interestingly, a study by University of Alberta geographers, published in 2003, found that while men tend to rate their directional skills more highly than women, both methods seem to work, because there’s no significant gender difference in wayfaring abilities.
Why You Don’t Notice Everything That’s Around You
As your brain maps your surroundings and your continuous relationship to them, it doesn’t take in every single detail. It couldn’t. Your eyes and other senses have the potential to take in far more information than you really have use for, so your brain continually makes decisions about what to pay attention to and what to ignore. This phenomenon can lead to something called inattentional blindness, in which your eyes and brain focus so hard on one thing that they completely miss something else that you’d think would be obvious. This was demonstrated in a famous experiment in the late 1990s by University of Illinois professor Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, a professor at Union College in New York, who had subjects watch a video and count the number of times that two groups of young women clad in different colored shirts passed basketballs around. The subjects paid such close attention to the task that they often missed another significant event—a person in a gorilla suit who walked into the game, pounded his chest defiantly, and then strolled out of view.
Inattentional blindness contributes to an increasingly troubling problem for modern drivers. We’re so busy paying attention to the instructions and the map on our GPS devices mounted on the dashboard, that we overlook what’s right in front of us.
A study by University College of London researchers, published in 2012 in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, revealed that drivers can effectively become oblivious to moving objects in front of them—even when they’re looking at the objects—because they’re making an effort to remember the image of the GPS map in their heads. Scans of subjects’ brains actually showed a lower amount of activity in the part of the brain that processes incoming visual data, while they were trying to remember an image.
"Our research would suggest that focusing on remembering the directions we’ve just seen on the screen means that we’re more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road," researcher Nilli Lavie explained in a newspaper interview. For example, drivers will miss "an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be ‘looking’ at where we’re going."
Four Ways to Improve Your Sense of Direction
Quick tips to improve your internal compass.
In the Brain Games Episode “What's Going On?” we learned about spatial awareness and the complex, multi-sensory process by which your brain figures out where you are in relation to other objects and the rest of your environment. We also learned about humans’ sense of direction and ability to navigate has long been a crucial survival tool. But if you’re one of those people who habitually gets lost in parking garages and spends a lot of time staring at street signs with an exasperated look, here are some tips on how to improve your ability to figure out where you are and how to get to your intended destination.
Stop relying so much on the GPS. Some neuroscientists believe that as we become increasingly dependent upon that gadget on the dashboard to tell us where to go, our ability to form mental maps increasingly may atrophy. So, scary as it seems, try turning it off at least occasionally and using your own senses, memory and imagination to get to where you’re going.
Look at what's around you. We’ve become so accustomed to using directional gadgets and following lists of directions that we often ignore our surroundings, which deprives us of the visual data that we need to form associations and mentally map our surroundings. Neuroscientists actually can see the effects of this laziness in brain scans. People who are reliant upon directions actually have less grey matter in the hippocampus area of their brains than people who navigate by visualizing their relative position to their surroundings and destination. (Conversely, London cabbies, who spend years developing the ability to navigate London’s complex geography by memory, have more grey matter in the hippocampus that the typical person.) Try to notice and remember features of the environment—distinctive buildings, trees, monuments, landscaping—that will help you to form a more detailed mental picture.
Train your brain. Temple University neurologist S. Ausim Azizi, in an interview with WebMD, notes that there are two modes of mental navigation—utilizing landmarks to memorize directions, and calculating distances, such as remembering to go 50 yards to the north and then 50 yards to the east. But the best way to improve your navigational abilities is to practice using both of these methods at once. He suggests picking a landmark, looking at it, and then locating it on a map, so that you can calibrate your ability to calculate distance as well.
Get in shape. Dr. Azizi also observes that exercise improves blood flow to the brain, and that studies have shown that older adults who increase their aerobic workouts have increased volume in the hippocampus region of the brain. So go for regular walks. You can actually practice your navigational skills as you’re doing that, as well.