The Velvet Principle

The Brain Processes Involved in Wayfinding

The Differences Between Habit Based and Conscious, Map Based Navigation

Published on Monday 01 October 2018


The Sign Design Society’s September event saw a panel of experts from the world of wayfinding, architecture, urban design and academia debating whether wayfinding merits its role as a specialist discipline. A big take away from a wide-ranging discussion, was the breadth of multi-disciplinary knowledge and capabilities needed to implement a successful wayfinding scheme. From the ability to interpret architectural plans; to psychology; product and graphic design skills; brand interpretation; and an understanding of materials and manufacturing processes.

Passing reference was made to the results emerging from university research in neuroscience – reminding me of a post a few years back which explored just this very subject. Several years on I find the subject matter just as enthralling and worth a repeat.

The spur was a conference hosted by the Royal Institute of Navigation and The Knowledge Transfer Network, entitled human cognition – enabling navigation. I was particularly struck by a talk given by Kate Jeffrey, who was the Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at UCL, in which she explained what’s going on in our brains when we navigate our environment. Firstly she made the distinction between two different processes:

1)   Automatic, unthinking habit based navigation – we’ve all had those experiences when we’ve driven a familiar route back home, arrive at our destination and realise we can’t remember anything about the journey;

2)   Conscious, goal focussed map based wayfinding.

Well it turns out that these two processes involve different parts of the brain. As a consequence it’s not easy to switch from one mode to the other.  The striatum, the bit that’s associated with planning and executing pathways of movement, deals with the automatic wayfinding and relies on landmarks and cues.

Conscious, map based wayfinding uses the hippocampus. As well as spatial navigation, this part of the brain is important in transferring information from the short-term to long-term memory. This is one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease resulting in the memory loss and disorientation symptoms. 

Conscious, Map Based Wayfinding

For conscious navigation, research over the last 45 years has shown that we need:

1)   To know where we are on a map,

2)   The scale,

3)   The orientation,

4)   And for places to be arranged in correct relation to each other.

Studies of the brain looking at the activity of neurons (the cells in the brain that transmit information through electrical or chemical signals) have identified a number of different cells that have different functions, but collectively work together to enable us to navigate unfamiliar environments:

1)   Place Cells – these create a cognitive representation of a space, termed a cognitive map.

2)   Head Direction Cells – their response will depend on which way your head is facing. There will be a relative decrease or increase in activity as you alter your view.

3)   Grid Cells – essentially an internal co-ordinate system that is key in helping to measure relative distances.

The importance of this research resulted in three of the scientists being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2014/advanced-medicineprize2014.pdf

To summarise the Place Cells are responsible for helping us to understand where we are on the map; the head direction cells – orientation; and the Grid Cells with scale and relative distance from places. As well as being responsible for defining position in an environment at any given time, The Place Cells are thought to be responsible for remembering past experiences. Interestingly researchers studying London taxi drivers have observed significant increases in the size of their hypothalamus as they learn the knowledge.

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Web Image - Place CellsWeb Image - Grid Cells