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Some of us can’t navigate anywhere without a GPS - but are we doomed to a life of directional bewilderment? Or is there hope for us yet?

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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When was the last time you were in a car with someone who drove for more than 15 minutes without a navigation app? Maybe it was yesterday.

Maybe you're one of those people who knows exactly where to get off an unfamiliar highway and can weave through three different exit lanes, two intersecting off-ramps, and an overpass without missing a beat. But if you are, you should know that you're a complete mystery to people who would probably be stuck in the middle of the desert somewhere if they had to drive without a Maps app to guide them. Or at least someone in the passenger seat holding a map, in those ancient times before most people had GPS.

The way our sense of direction works is mysterious to scientists, too. But there might be a whole system for it in our brains — and practice could help improve it. To learn about how navigation works at a cellular level, researchers turned to a species that humans actually have a lot in common with: rats!

Since in the 1940s, researchers have identified several types of neurons that work together to help rats navigate. Grid cells are thought to help provide a sense of how far apart certain locations are. They fire in evenly spaced intervals in a hexagonal pattern.

Head direction cells fire when the animal is facing a specific direction. Border cells, on the other hand, fire when the animal reaches a border, like the edge of a box. And then there are place cells, which … fire in specific places.

And as far as we can tell, humans seem to navigate in similar ways. However, this system hasn't been tested much in humans, because if you want to record data from individual brain cells, you need to place electrodes inside the brain itself. But some people with severe epilepsy already have electrodes implanted in their brains to monitor their seizures and help surgeons figure out how to treat them.

And it turns out that some of those people are also willing to help scientists who want to learn more about the brain. In a few different studies, researchers had people with the electrodes do navigation tasks in virtual reality, and identified grid and place cells in humans that were very similar to those in rats. So we have some idea of the different types of cells that come together to help us navigate.

But that doesn't tell us much about why some people are so much better at finding their way around than others. A lot of those differences seem to be connected to the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that's involved in both spatial navigation and long-term memory. For example, studies have found that people with a larger hippocampus perform better on spatial navigation tasks and are more likely to report having a better sense of direction.

Improved connections between the hippocampus and other brain areas have been associated with better navigation skills, too. Of course, we can't really know if these people are better at navigating because they have a larger hippocampus or if they have a larger hippocampus because they're better at navigating. Brain studies are complicated that way.

But there seems to be a pretty close connection. And we do know that your life experiences can change the size of the hippocampus. For example, multiple studies in taxi drivers, who have tons of practice with spatial navigation, have found that parts of their hippocampi got bigger over time compared to non-taxi drivers.

Another study looked at whether a 4-month navigation training program could affect the usual decrease in the size of the hippocampus as people get older. And the researchers found that its size didn't decrease as much as in people who didn't participate in the program. So your experiences do seem to matter here — which is convenient, because you can give yourself more experience with spatial navigation by just practicing.

For example, one study found that practicing navigation in virtual reality helped both people with and without brain damage get better at it. Unfortunately, there haven't been many studies on the best way to practice. Using your cell phone is probably a bad idea, though.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that people using a GPS traveled less efficiently and had less accurate mental maps compared to people who didn't use GPS. Although, again, it's hard to know whether not using the GPS made them better at navigating, or if they didn't use the GPS because they were better at navigating. Yet another study found that those using mobile maps were worse at estimating route distances than people using traditional maps.

Since most of us do have access to mobile maps almost all of the time, maybe this is one of those things that people just … don't really need to be good at anymore. Like memorizing phone numbers. But if you do want to get better at finding your way around, it's probably not too late to change your brain.

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Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! If you're interested in learning more about the inner workings of the human mind — well, no GPS required. Just go to and subscribe! [♪ OUTRO].