Staying Found: The Search For A Sense of Direction

Photo by Baptiste Dépalle

“Navigation,” begins Chapter three of the Wilderness Travel Course (WTC) Student Handbook, is “the art of ‘staying found’”.  When it comes to outdoor adventures, the difference between exploring unknown territory and being hopelessly lost arguably comes down to one factor: staying oriented*. 

Humans have been searching for insight about navigation for, quite probably, as long as they have been around.  Everyone has that friend who can re-find their car in a parking lot the size of a small city, or that friend who can lose it in a parking lot the size of a backyard.

For a long time, scientists (and journalists) have been trying to account for this variation.  Is our ability to navigate learned or is it innate?

In 2000, an article by Backpacker magazine asked that same question.  The article ran the gammut of navigational inquirers and their ideas.  One biologist, postulated in the 1980’s that we were born with an innate sense of direction which we either hone with use or demolish with neglect.

Another suggested that expert navigators, like ancient Polynesian sailors, can detect acute differences in their environment, “that the rest of us overlook due to daily overdoses of visual, tactile, and auditory ‘noise’?”

Yet another pointed out that students from the country generally have better orientation skills than their urban counter parts, perhaps because they are more attune to the sun’s location.

But are navigational skills something we are born with? Or are they, in fact, an art?

This series of articles, Staying Found, will explore the answer to that question, looking at animals and humans, the philosophical and the practical, outdoors and indoors, in urban places and in wilderness, at cellular scales and, perhaps, even at planetary scales.  Enjoy!


Part I: The Compass Cells

No matter where we are, before we learn to navigate the world, we must learn to navigate our own brains. We must ask, which part of our brain—which cells even—are at our navigational helm.

In 2010, some curious research found its way out of the lab and into Scientific American.

The publication covered two independent studies that found that mice seemed to possess a sense of direction before they had any visual experience with their environment (Mice do not open their eyes until about two weeks old).

The part of the brain responsible for navigation is similar across all mammals meaning that the findings likely apply to humans as well.  Mammalian navigation systems are made of three types of cells, ones that appear to be active in the mice brain quite early on.

The first navigational cells to develop were the “head-direction” cells and were active as soon as the mouse opened it’s eyes.  These cells record where the head is pointing.

But two other cells developed later on suggesting that experience may play a role in navigational development.  The next cells to fire up (on day 16) were the “place cells,” responsible for recording “location in an environment”.

The development of the third type of navigational cells, the “gird” cells—responsible for recording “distance covered while moving”— developed between days 16 and 20 (the two studies differed in their findings).

This was surprising to one of the scientists, who thought the grid cell would come before the place cell, as distance traveled can be used to help inform our sense of place.

Though Scientific American pointed out that similar studies cannot be done in humans (unless you’d like them to implant electrodes in your brain), scientists can see how the human brain reacts to navigational simulations in fMRIs and correlate that to the mouse readings.

The findings? The ability to use a landmark for orientation occurs around day 15 in mice and around six months in humans. The ability to construct a mental map occurs at 21 days for mice and around nine months for humans, “both ages around the time of weaning,” pointed out one of the scientists to Scientific American.

While the research suggests a set time path for early human navigational development, it does not seem to account for the variability in individuals ability to “stay found”. The researcher disclosed to Scientific American that while the mice are “bred to be as similar as possible for the sake of experiment replication,” each mouse had its own ‘personality,’ but still showed the same cell development patterns.

Furthermore, the link between having developed navigational neurons and finding your lost car is still unclear, said one scientist.

While the verdict is not entirely out, perhaps the research has changed the question.  As one of the interviewed researchers pointed out: if our spatial perception of the world is indeed innate, or even partially so, it means that ‘in philosophical terms some of our understanding of the world is absolute, rather than relative.’

‘We would assume that the brain is shaped by evolution, so that means it must be good enough for reproductive success…but does that mean it’s accurate?’ she said.

For the navigationally challenged in the Wilderness Travel Course, we’re hoping, the answer is yes.


*Though the words navigation and orientation have been used as synonyms in this article, according to Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, orientation is defined as “the science of mastering your exact position on earth,” and navigation as “the science of determining the location of your objective” and of staying pointed towards it.


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