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The Brain Science of Wayfinding

Place Cells in the brain

It might surprise you, but work to understand the complexities of the brain processes involved in wayfinding and navigation has been a fertile area of academic research for many decades. Its importance was recognised in the award of the 2014 The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, to three scientists – John O’Keefe and May-Britt & Edvard Moser, for their discovery of nerve cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain.

To cut a long story very short, their research involved studying the brain patterns of rats as they moved from space to space. Subsequent research has suggested that there is high degree of similarity with humans too.  By looking at the activity of neurons (the cells in the brain that transmit information through electrical or chemical signals) they identified several different nerve cells, which collectively work together to enable animals to orientate and navigate through unfamiliar environments:

Place Cells

Discovered by John O’Keefe in 1971, these create a cognitive representation of a space, essentially an internal map. His research also concluded that memories of different environments are stored in the brain as combination of Place Cell activities. So if you’ve ever had one of those auto-pilot experiences, when you take a regular route home and can’t remember anything about the journey? That’s the Place Cells doing their work.

Place Cells are found in the hippocampus, an area of the brain which has a significant role in learning and memory. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, researchers studying London taxi drivers Learning the Knowledge observed significant increases in the size of their hippocampus.

The hippocampus is also one of the first regions of the brain to suffer damage in Alzheimer’s disease, which helps explain the memory loss and disorientation symptoms associated with the condition. 

Grid Cells

Grid Cells in the brain

All images courtesy:

Identified by May-Britt and Edvard Moser (2005), these act as an internal co-ordinate system. As animals move through a space, these cells fire off signals at regularly spaced intervals, as a series of hexagonal patterns. The researchers found that Grid Cells work with others that respond to a location’s borders and head direction to send messages to Place Cells. In combination these provide information about the precise location within this cognitive or internal map, to enable pathfinding.

Head Direction Cells

These cells provide the ‘sense of direction’. They are believed to encode directional information relative to particular landmarks. Their response will depend on which way the head is facing, relative to a particular landmark. Essentially, they act a compass.  Although rather than the earth’s magnetic field, they respond to sensory cues – predominantly visual. Using the precise location information from the Grid Cells, they ensure the animal moves in the right direction to perform the target navigational task.

Application to Wayfinding Design

For an animal to  navigate their environment, different cells within the brain work together to:

  • Create maps which include information about borders and fixed landmarks.
  • Provide precise positioning information about their location within this map.
  • Ensure that they move in right direction to get to their destination.

Funnily enough these are all elements that wayfinding consultants reflect within the design of physical wayfinding systems:

  • Maps and plans, which feature key landmarks are a staple of any wayfinding scheme- helping people to understand the wider context; plan their route; and develop their internal/cognitive map.
  • You Are Here markers – an important component of any wayfinding task is knowing your current location, relative to the target destination.
  • Heads Up Map Design – rather than following the north, south, west, east convention, good practice is for maps in wayfinding signs to be oriented to reflect the view (and direction of travel) of the reader.

Proving, if you needed it, that creating successful wayfinding schemes is part art, part science.

Further Reading

For those who would like a slightly more detailed explanation of the neuroscience

A Sense of Place – Tale L Bjerknes and May-Britt Moser (The Biologist)

The Brain’s Navigational Place and Grid Cell System

The hippocampus as a spatial map: Preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat -O’Keefe, J., & Dostrovsky, J. (Brain Research 1971) 

Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex – Torkel Hafting, Marianne Fyhn, Sturla Molden, May-Britt Moser & Edvard I. Moser (Nature 2005)*

* Full access subject to payment