The Neuroscience of Planning and Navigating Your Daily Life

The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex enable navigation from point A to point B.

Posted Jun 12, 2016

Mopic/Shutterstock
Source: Mopic/Shutterstock

This week, Stanford researchers announced that they’ve identified the specific neural mechanisms, and brain activity, required to plan and execute the navigation of daily life. This discovery is a breakthrough in cognitive neuroscience. These findings also serve as a practical reminder for how planning and visualizing a future destination as a physical location—or a station in life—can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

In the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, the protagonist (who represents the reader) decides to leave home and sets off on a journey. The young boy faces various roadblocks and hurdles on his quest to have adventures beyond his ordinary, known world. The book begins with an unexpected mention of neuroscience,

“Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

Although this book was written before neuroscientists understood how our brain plans and navigates a route from point A to point B.... Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) prophetically understood the importance of having navigational goals and an inner dialogue within your present state of mind focused on the future aspects of reaching a destination.

Your Hippocampus and Prefrontal Cortex Help You Reach The Places You'll Go 

In their recent study, the Stanford researchers found that the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex work in tandem in ways that allow humans to plan and navigate a route from one location to another. Goal-oriented navigation is a complex process that requires creating a mental game plan for reaching the future places you intend to go. 

The June 2016 study, “Prospective Representation of Navigational Goals in the Human Hippocampus,” was published in the journal Science.  

For this study, the researchers used whole-brain, high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify how the human hippocampus and interrelated cortical structures simulate future events and support prospective navigational goals for human individuals.

This research was led by Thackery Brown, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University. In a statement on his website, Brown describes his research by saying,

“My research focuses on the flexible representation of memories and expression of behaviors in humans. Combining neuroimaging and virtual reality, my studies ask how we are able to remember the distinct events that happen in our lives, and what mechanisms our brain employs to draw on the past in order to make decisions about the present and plan for the future.”

For his latest study, Brown and colleagues immersed human study participants into a virtual-reality environment in which they had to navigate through five different locations to a destination. The following day, the participants were required to navigate the same locations and find their targeted destinations.

Brain scans were conducted as individuals planned their routes and also during the actual navigation. Analysis of the data pinpointed highly specific activity in the hippocampus and interconnected brain areas throughout the cortex representing the future locations through which participants would navigate.

Network-level interactions of the hippocampus with the prefrontal cortex allowed for flexible representations of planned destinations. The hippocampus was also able to keep track of the route towards the "future goal," or targeted destination during navigation.

Three other brain regions—the parahippocampal cortex, perirhinal cortex, and retrosplenial complex—were found to help the brain "visualize" future spatial contexts for navigation.

You're Off To Great Places in Daily Life and Beyond

musicman/Shutterstock
Source: musicman/Shutterstock

As an ultra-endurance athlete and writer, Dr. Seuss' children's book, Oh, The Places You'll Go! has been a valuable reference throughout my career. It was fun to wake up this morning, and realize that the insights I've adopted from Dr. Seuss since childhood—and which helped me develop athletic routines to navigate uncharted territories—have been validated and corroborated by the latest brain imaging techniques. 

For example, whenever I competed internationally in an ultra-marathon or Ironman Triathlon, I would always navigate and survey the unfamiliar race course in the days prior to the event and create a mental road map. After reading this study, I realize this mapping process was taking place in my hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

My pre-race mental map included landmarks—along with a crystal-clear visualization of myself from a bird's-eye view overcoming any unexpected obstacles, or moments of self-doubt—to reach the finish line. As an ultra-distance athlete, I always encoded the route and the destination to the finish line, or what the Stanford researchers call a "navigational goal." 

The night before every race, I would do a pre-race ritual in which I'd trace the race course on a two-dimensional map with my index finger while visualizing myself running, biking, or swimming the various legs of the race. Most importantly, I would picture reaching the finish line as a goal-oriented destination that became hardwired into my neural circuitry. On race day, I became like a heat-seeking missile programmed to hit a target, or a squirrel determined to get a nut, as I navigated my way towards the finish line.

This previsualization, along with other preparations for achieving navigational goals, resulted in a high success rate for me reaching the finish line of very long races. These included things like running 135 miles through Death Valley in July and winning the non-stop Triple Ironman (7.2-mile swim, 336-mile bike, 78.6-mile run) three years in a row.

Conclusion: Your Hippocampus Can Steer You Anywhere You Want to Go

The Stanford researchers conclude, "Collectively, these data indicate that a hippocampal-cortical network supports prospective simulation of navigational events during goal-directed planning." Hippocampal activity patterns code for future navigation goals in a way that allows people from all walks of life to find their way to a specific destination. 

The latest neuroscience provides intriguing insights into how the human brain navigates our past, present, and future endeavors. And, as Dr. Seuss sums things up.... "Will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)"

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