How we navigate

This BBC story describes a study about how the human brain navigates.

On the street

They hooked up London cabbies to an fMRI machine, and observed which parts of their brain were active during different tasks while driving around London in a simulator. Here’s what they found:

Hippocamus
Initial route planning
Retroslenial cortex
Tracking the route in progress (waypoints, etc.)
Anterior prefrontal cortex
Planning diversions during the trip
Right lateral prefrontal cortex
Hazard detection (closed streets, etc.)
Medial prefrontal cortex
Tracking distance to destination

For example, as the cabbies got closer to their (virtual) destinations, the medial prefrontal cortex lit up more and more, like a DME counting down the distance to a VOR. Different parts of their brains performed social tasks like worrying about passengers.

In the air

These map very closely to the tasks a pilot performs, so it’s possible we’d see the same thing if a pilot in a simulator were hooked up to an fMRI: the right lateral prefrontal cortex would light up when watching for traffic or looking at bad weather ahead, the medial prefrontal cortex would show more and more activity as the pilot approached destination, etc.

It makes sense, then, that different people would show different relative strengths based on brain development — some might be very good at planning a route, but lousy at diversions; other people might hate planning, but be great at responding to unexpected problems en route. It’s a good argument against one size fits all for flight instruction.

Or then again, maybe flying is different. If anyone is looking for a great excuse to fit aviation into a grad school research project, here’s your chance …

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About David Megginson

Scholar, tech guy, Canuck, open-source/data/information zealot, urban pedestrian, language geek, tea drinker, pater familias, red tory, amateur musician, private pilot.
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One Response to How we navigate

  1. Matt says:

    heh I’m taking a class on self-organization of circuitry in the brain. I get to write two research papers so maybe I can tie this in somehow!

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