Recently I received a call from ABC North Tasmania asking if I would chat about ‘sense of direction’. A quick search of our news archives revealed we had at least three interesting stories. So I agreed to speak with the breakfast presenter Penny Terry at 6:20 am (what I do for science).
You can hear my interview with Penny, but in the meantime here are my notes.
The first study was about scientists identifying parts of the human brain that map approximately to direction. They found found a small area in the parietal cortex, located towards the back of the brain, lit up when the subjects were navigating the maze. They suggest it may ‘throw light’ on the way the brain functions in people with brain damage, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
The second study found that without a guide humans walk in circles. In a slightly bizarre set of experiments, volunteers were dropped off, in either the desert or forest, and shown which direction to walk towards.
The researchers found that those who walked in the forest on a day when the sun was visible were able to use it as a guide.Desert ‘volunteers’ walking when the sun was visible didn’t walk in a straight line, but instead veered slightly to the left or right.
The researchers postulate that if you walk without visual cues the only information you’ve got to tell if you’re walking straight comes from your body, but this information is ‘noisy’ or has errors. They also found that most people don’t have a systematic bias to one side.
Finally, the study that we all want to know about – are females as good as males with directions? Yes … if you’re a rat.
The UK researchers found male and female newborns have an innate sense of direction before they’ve even begun to move around. They determined this by measuring neural activity when the rat pups left the nest for the first time to explore a new environment.