Navigation Abilities Brain Structure
November 26, 2013

The Structure Of Your Brain Determines Your Navigation Skills

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

People who instantly know their way around after having traveled to a particular destination at least once have structurally different brains than those who require a map or GPS to navigate from place to place, new research shows.

Doctoral researcher Joost Wegman at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands demonstrated that good navigators store relevant landmarks automatically along the way to their destination, while bad navigators tend to follow a fixed procedure or route such as “turn left twice, then turn right at the statue.”

There are “detectable structural differences” between the brains of good and bad navigators, Wegman said.

“These anatomical differences are not huge, but we found them significant enough, because we had a lot of data,” he said in an interview with AlphaGalileo.

The difference is in the hippocampus, which plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation.

“We saw that good navigators had more so-called gray matter. In the brain’s gray matter information is processed. Bad navigators, on the other hand, have more white matter – which connects gray matter areas with each other, in a brain area called the caudate nucleus. This area stores spatial actions with respect to oneself. For example, to turn right at the record store.”

Wegman conducted his research by combining data from multiple studies undertaken by the Radboud University research group Neural Correlates of Spatial Memory at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior.

“We always give participants extensive questionnaires in our studies. This allows us to explain possible differences in behavior afterwards. People generally have a good insight into their ability to find their way, so these questions provide a feasible way to assess these abilities,” Wegman said.

“I have coupled the answers of these questionnaires with the brain scans we have collected over the years, which allowed us to detect these differences.” Wegman will present his thesis, entitled "Objects in space - the neural basis of landmark-based navigation and individual differences in navigational ability," on Wednesday at Radboud University.