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.
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."