Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Brain & Nervous System Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Why Do You Always Get Lost?

Some people always get lost; others have an innate sense of direction. The difference lies in their brains.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Jessica Levin never gets lost. "I have a weirdly good sense of direction," says the 33-year-old president of a marketing company in Edison, N.J. "If I've been to a place before, even 10 or 20 years earlier, I can go back and know how to get around."

People like Levin don't have an innate sense of direction. What they do have is outstanding recognition and spatial memory: that is, the parts of the memory that record aspects of their environment and where those aspects are in relation to each other.

Recommended Related to Brain & Nervous System

Winning the Battle

At first, 14-year-old Austin Story resisted the family’s plans to go hiking at beautiful Stokes State Forest on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 31. “He didn’t want to go hanging out with adults because adults are too slow,” recalls Army Lt. Colonel Shane Story, 48. “But we insisted because it was going to be our last part of a weekend vacation with friends in New Jersey. … We wanted him off the TV and the Xbox and outside, enjoying the forest and the hills.” Despite his initial stubbornness, as soon...

Read the Winning the Battle article > >

The Hippocampus's Role in Navigation

The hippocampus, a structure in the brain that is also important for other types of memory, contains special neurons called grid cells and place cells that seem to create a cellular map of the places you've been and the routes you've taken. (One study, found that the hippocampi of experienced London taxi drivers were significantly bigger than those of regular folks.)

Place cells identify where you are, while grid cells remind you of the spatial relationship of this place to other places you've been, according to S. Ausim Azizi, MD, PhD, who chairs the department of neurology at Temple University School of Medicine.

Your brain can find your way using either or both of these aspects of spatial memory, Azizi explains. However, although we all rely on both kinds of memory, individuals' brains may tend to use one over the other. "Some people are really good at navigating by objects in the environment, the function of object memory," Azizi says. For example, they'll say, "I go to the gas station and make a right turn." People who tend to rely on spatial memory, on the other hand, might say, "I'll go 50 yards to the north, then 50 yards to the east."

You can improve your way-finding ability specifically by practicing the skill, according to Azizi. "The more you get out and go places, the better," he says. Physical exercise improves the blood flow to the brain, while mental exercise, such as doing puzzles or learning a new language, stimulates the development of new nerve cells and connections in your brain.

Perhaps Levin has such a superb sense of direction because of those grid cells, or it may be that her brain integrates both kinds of navigation better than most people's. In any case, it serves her well.

"It's eliminated some fights on long car trips, for sure," she says. "We never have to pull over and ask for directions."

How to Improve Your Sense of Direction

You don't have to spend your life as a wanderer. Science shows you can improve your spatial memory.

Train the brain.  Azizi says the best way to improve your spatial memory is to engage in activities that specifically involve both objects and coordinates. Practice combining these two skills by looking at a landmark and then locating it on a map.

Work out. "Exercise increases blood flow to active areas of the body, including the brain," Azizi says. Many studies have found increased volume in the hippocampi of older adults who increase their aerobic exercise, and one study showed that exercise could improve spatial memory.

Eat right. A study of grade school children found that eating oatmeal for breakfast improved spatial memory specifically. Numerous studies have shown that eating foods rich in antioxidants improves blood flow to the brain, which enhances memory skills.

Reviewed on May 16, 2011

Today on WebMD

Depressed
Slideshow
3d scan of fractured skull
Slideshow
 
human brain waves
Article
brain maze
fitQuiz
 
senior man
Article
brain research briefing
Article
 
Syringe
Article
graphic of human head
Article
 
mans hands on laptop keyboard
Article
brain illustration stroke
Slideshow
 
most common stroke symptoms
Article
Parkinsons Disease Medications
Article