Going Left Isn't Always Right

Nobel Laureates Discover a GPS in the Brain

Posted Dec 13, 2014

Does this ever happen to you? I can be driving north on the freeway thinking that I'm going south, unless I can see the sun setting over the Pacific, and even then I can get confused. (What's the ocean doing over there?) Some of us have no sense of direction, and it seems to be a female-dominated trait.

Not being any kind of a scientist, I have my own explanation for why more women than men are directionally challenged, and this is it: When we are young, we are driven around in cars by our fathers. As we get older we may be driven around by our brothers, then our boyfriends, and eventually by our husbands. Up to that point, in other words, we have never needed to know where we were going or how to get there.

Unfortunately, later in life some of us are apt to find ourselves alone either through divorce or widowhood, and for the first time be forced to rely on our own sense of direction. What sense of direction? My husband used to say that I could get lost in the turn of the hall. (I would instinctively go left when I should have gone right, and vice versa.) I always marveled that he, on the other hand, could go unerringly to any given destination, whether or not he had ever been there before. I can rarely find the same place twice, even with a map. 

How did he do it? I never had a clue, back then, but now I do. Of course I'd heard about GPS navigation devices in cars (my friends all said that I should have one), but only since the recent Nobel Prizes in medicine were announced did I know about something called an "inner GPS in the brain." 

Aha! According to the three scientists who shared the Prize, humans (and lab rats, too, apparently) have an inner GPS that helps them navigate. 

Again, not being a scientist, what I get out of reading about it may be way off, but here are the facts as I understand them. One of the Nobel laureates, an American by the name of John O'Keefe, discovered place cells, the first component of this inner navigational system. He found that lab rats in his experiments were not just registering visual input, but using these cells to build up a map in their brains. The other two Prize winners, May-Britt and Edvard Moser, a husband and wife team of Norwegian scientists, identified another type, called grid cells, which they say are responsible for generating a coordinate system for position and path-finding. 

It is thanks to these two cell types that humans and animals alike are able to find their way around their immediate environment using only the map in their heads. John O'Keefe found place cells in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, and the Mosers identified grid cells in a nearby section known as the entorhinal cortex. These cells somehow work together to create an inner navigational system.

I'll give them this much, anyway. These three Nobel laureates have made important discoveries which could have an impact on brain disorders like Alzheimer's, for example. But it doesn't explain why more women than men lack a sense of direction, or why I have to see the sun setting over the Pacific to know whether I'm going north or south. I really hate to think that a lab rat is smarter than I am.