Human spatial memory is outstanding. In Ancient Greece, orators visualized their speeches as a mansion, placing topics in each room, then retrieving them while taking an imagined route through the building. Memory champions still do the same.
But navigation is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ skill. Drivers in a simulator who follow satellite-navigation instructions find it more difficult to work out where they have been than those who use maps. Instructed drivers also fail to notice they have been led past the same point twice. Mountain-rescue teams are tired of searching for people with drained smartphone batteries, no sense of direction and no paper map.
As we age, our spatial knowledge and our capabilities for route learning and recall also decline. Loss of spatial orientation is an early indicator of dementia. Those who are affected are often moved to unfamiliar places such as care homes, which can exacerbate disorientation. The minimalist interiors of hospitals lack signposts: in a 2015 study, nearly half of junior doctors reported that they had gotten lost in hospitals on the way to a call in which a patient’s life was in danger.
The solution might lie in designing buildings that are easy to navigate — rather than in gadgets. Repeated and mirrored layouts cause confusion; cluttered corridors overload the mind. Placement of simple, memorable and unique landmarks such as pictures can help with orientation.
The human brain has everything a hill walker might put in a rucksack. Studies in rats have revealed three types of cell that enable navigation: place cells, which fire at certain locations; head-direction cells, which track the orientation of the head; and grid cells, which set up a coordinate system for assessing scale and distance.
Learning the layout of city streets has been shown to increase the size of part of a taxi driver’s hippocampus, and a similar effect has been observed in musicians. While improvising music, a free-jazz saxophonist ‘sees’ a landscape of notes to navigate.
Fresh locational cues can conflict with the maps in our brains. It is unsurprising that it takes time to reorient when we emerge from an underground station or that the voice of the in-car satellite-navigation system grates on us.
Our brains must decide whether to accept new information and rejig our internal maps or to reject it as being wrong. A simple, reliable cue — such as a north-facing arrow at the top of an escalator — can help to speed up reorientation.
Remember, we’re all in this together,