Get Lost


Why I like getting lost.

As I’ve written about before (Maps), I am a big proponent of exploring new places with no other resources than a paper map, the openness to ask for directions, and the expectation of getting lost.  It is a beautiful thing to plan on getting lost. See, it is like this permission for life to happen exactly as it wants to. You relinquish control and just like that you set yourself up for these beautiful collisions to happen. Like that time I was walking home and met a guy who was looking for directions to a particular restaurant. We ended up having a great conversation about some shared interests and I was able to help him find the place he was looking for. I wasn’t inconvenienced or bothered by his request. I was actually pleasantly surprised that this guy had stopped to ask me for directions to where he was going (instead of consulting his smart phone). When was the last time you asked an actual human being for directions? It is a wonderful thing to do, a great excuse to start a conversation and I would highly recommend it.

How we use our brain to keep from getting lost.

What is going on in your brain when you are trying to navigate to a new place? Studies have supported the idea that a particular brain area, the hippocampus, has certain cells that may be responsible for cortical spatial mapping of our environment.5 These hippocampal ‘place cells’ become active when an organism takes in stimuli- such as visual landmarks of a particular location while orienting to a place2 Also, supporting the role of the hippocampus in navigation is research showing that taxi drivers have larger hippocampi than non-taxi drivers with similar demographic traits (age, sex, etc.)4

But, not all of us navigate via this “spatial strategy”. It has been theorized that, with practice, people switch from a “landmark focused” navigational strategy to one that is more guided by “stimulus-response” behavior and thus is less cognitively demanding and more efficient (i.e., if I turn Right at the 1st street and Left at the 2nd street I will get home).1,2 To me this “cue followed by cue” approach to getting somewhere is very akin to how people use GPS devices to navigate. Humor me and read this in your best Siri voice: “…in two miles turn left onto Ventura boulevard.” I have had the experience of following a GPS or simply listening to directions from someone I am driving with to a new destination and then realizing I have no idea how to get home or what route I came by.

This makes sense when you think that “cue followed by cue” navigating uses a distinctly different process and in fact other areas of the brain are active (e.g., the caudate nucleus) when using this “non-spatial” navigation strategy.2

It is likely that people may use two different types of information in their navigation.  Cognitive maps, therefore, include components from both: topological information (relationship between landmarks- hippocampus) and metric information (distances and directions- posterior parietal cortex)6.

What I am curious about is what happens to our brain activity and neuroplasticity if we are never forced to use spatial strategies in the first place! For example, if we cut right to the chase and just use the “cue followed by cue” aka “stimulus-response” approach to navigation, who are we cheating?

Do you have a fancy map in your hand or in your brain?

I don’t have a smart phone and so my navigation when I am driving solo relies primarily on paper maps, landmarks, and if necessary a print out of google maps directions. I have always thought that the more I am able to rely on the paper maps and landmarks and less on the exact step-by-step google maps directions, the better sense I have of where I am and the more likely I am to find my way in the future in that area. In fact, this idea has been corroborated by some research that suggests that using GPS technology makes people worse at navigation than paper maps3

Maybe in a sense, the more cognitive effort that you put forth in learning where you are going the more you grow the maps in your brain instead of relying on external maps. (As I’ve written about before, cognitive Maps change based on use). Happy map making everyone!


  1. Chan E, Baumann O, Bellgrove MA, Mattingley JB. From Objects to Landmarks: The Function of Visual Location Information in Spatial Navigation. Frontiers in Psychology. 2012;3.
  2. Iaria G, Petrides M, Dagher A, Pike B, Bohbot VD. Cognitive strategies dependent on the hippocampus and caudate nucleus in human navigation: variability and change with practice. Journal of Neuroscience. 2003;23(13):5945–5952.
  3. Ishikawa T, Fujiwara H, Imai O, Okabe A. Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2008;28(1):74-82.
  4. Maguire EA, Spiers HJ, Good CD, Hartley T, Frackowiak RSJ, Burgess N. Navigation expertise and the human hippocampus: A structural brain imaging analysis. Hippocampus. 2003;13(2):250-259.
  5. O’Keefe J, Dostrovsky J. The hippocampus as a spatial map. Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain research. 1971;34(1):171–175.

6. Poucet B. Spatial cognitive maps in animals: new hypotheses on their structure and   neural mechanisms. Psychological Review. 1993, 100 (2): 163-182.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. grandmajody says:

    In my experience another way our spacial strategy is affected is when we are passengers. I find that in that role, I have little sense of how I arrived at a destination, nor how to return by the same route


  2. Austin says:

    Great points. There are a whole host of related examples and questions that will become more and more important as technology keeps progressing rapidly. For example, new safety technology in cars such as lane-change warnings, parking assist, etc. are, perhaps with good intentions, marketed as entirely positive things, but it is extremely likely that someone used to driving such a car would be more accident-prone when driving a friend’s older car without these features. Even more thought-provoking: how will our brains change when the typical car on the road is self-driving and the average person no longer needs to know how to drive? (in, perhaps, 10 years? I, for one, think that self-driving cars will be one of the most positive and beneficial technologies in modern history.) As is often the case with the widespread use of new technologies, certain skills that are currently important will become much less so, and newly valuable skills will arise in their place.


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