The way we navigate is controlled by two brain regions which track the distance to our destination, according to new research.
The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the journal Current Biology, found that at the beginning of a journey, one region of the brain calculates the straight-line or as a crow flies distance.
But during travel a different area of the brain computes the precise distance along the path to get there.
The findings pinpoint the precise brain regions used and in doing so change how scientists believed we use our brain to navigate.
Previously, researchers had disagreed over whether the brain calculates a route or calculates the straight-line to a destination.
Dr Hugo Spiers and his team at University College London used film footage to recreate the busy streets of Soho in London inside an MRI scanner.
Study participants were asked to navigate through the district, famous for its winding roads and complex junctions, whilst their brain activity was monitored.
The researchers analysed brain activity during the different stages of the journey: setting course for the destination, keeping track of the destination while travelling, and decision making at street junctions.
The team found that activity in the entorhinal cortex, a region essential for navigation and memory, was sensitive to the straight-line distance to the destination when first working out how to get there.
During the rest of the journey, the posterior hippocampus, also known for its role in navigation and memory, became active when keeping track of the path needed to reach the destination.
The results also reveal what happens in our brain when we use a Sat Nav or GPS to get to a destination.
By recording brain activity when participants used Sat Nav-like instructions to reach their goal, the researchers found that neither of the brain regions tracked the distance to the destination and in general the brain was much less active.
Dr Spiers said:
“Our team developed a new strategy for testing navigation and found that the way our brain directs our navigation is more complex than we imagined, calculating two types of distance in separate areas of the brain.”
The results might explain why London taxi drivers end up with an enlarged posterior hippocampus.
“Our results indicate that it is the daily demand on processing paths in their posterior hippocampus that leads to the impressive expansion in their grey matter,” Dr Spiers said.
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