Walk and Talk with Kate Jeffrey

The behavioural neuroscientist and Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation discusses how the brain has evolved to apprehend direction, space, positioning and route-planning – and why men and women’s navigational abilities can differ.

By Susan Gray

A woman standing in front of a stream

The behavioural neuroscientist and Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation discusses how the brain has evolved to apprehend direction, space, positioning and route-planning – and why men and women’s navigational abilities can differ.

What drew you to researching human navigation?

I grew up and studied medicine in New Zealand. During a behavioural science project, I got interested in how the brain stores information and discovered that the hippocampus is this incredibly important structure for organising knowledge. In 1993, I moved to London to work with John O’Keefe, who won a Nobel Prize in 2014 for discovering that the hippocampus makes a spatial map in our brains and contains ‘place cells’ that light up when we’re heading in a certain direction.

How did human navigation evolve?

When living things started to move around, we started to develop systems in the brain for interpreting the sensory information coming in to figure out where we were and to plan where we wanted to go. So when humans started to evolve, we came already equipped with a sophisticated ability to find our way around. Then we developed language and were able to communicate navigational information. As we formed groups and spread, we had to find ways to transmit this information to our children and pass it on, so oral navigation such as songlines developed. Eventually, we used horses and developed technology – such as ships – that enabled us to travel many miles into unknown territory. 

Tell us about research in this field

It is all focused on the central system for navigation in the hippocampus – this long, thin structure deep in the brain, which is also important for memory. So we’re trying to understand why we would evolve a system that involves both space and memory. Space is where memory happens. All the things that happen to you happen in a place, so it makes sense to link them together. Space is a handy way of organising memories. When you go to a school reunion, for example, memories flood back that you’d not normally think about. The brain has linked its map of where things happened to memories of what happened. When that system degenerates, like it does in Alzheimer’s disease, people lose their ability to find their way round to make new memories.

Is there a difference between the way men and women navigate?

Men and women have different experiences of navigation. More often men drive. Men traditionally have been more likely to work outside the home, and needed to travel more than women, so there are these different life experiences. But there is a pattern that crops up across cultures and even across species, which is that males are more likely to use a global sense of direction to navigate, and women are more likely to use local landmarks, route information and sequences to navigate. Gender differences could be either life experience or biological.

Can we improve our sense of direction?

Some people who are ‘bad navigators’ tend to walk along in a daydream and don’t notice their surroundings – such as hills or the sun’s position – which stabilise your sense of direction. If you build up a global sense of where you are, paying attention to the location of larger things, you end up with a more confident sense of being familiar with your surroundings. And that means you’re more flexible, so if the way back is blocked, you can find another way around. Let’s get kids back out into the wilderness and set them loose with a map and compass. Children and adults no longer feel like animals in the landscape. It’s a shame because once you feel part of the landscape and start noticing the rivers and trees, you also notice changes.

Is technology diminishing our natural abilities?

On the one hand, it’s plausible that if we’re not using our hippocampal navigation system very much, then the hippocampus might not be as well exercised. On the other, the human mind has a way of keeping itself busy, so if we’re not using the hippocampus as much as we used to for navigation, maybe we use it for more abstract navigation – through the internet or through our imaginations. If navigating through technology is going to have an effect, it will take many years to show up.

Why do we get lost in large buildings?

The sense of direction needs directional landmarks. In these big spaces you can be facing one way or you can be facing the other, and your brain doesn’t immediately know which way is which and can’t make a map. If you haven’t got a mental map, it’s very difficult to feel the sense of orientation. Retailers do that deliberately; they want you to take the most inefficient route through their space, passing as much merchandise as possible. Just think about how air passengers are forced along a winding path through duty free. They are trying to deliberately thwart your sense of direction.

How can we give the best directions?

There are no foolproof ways to give directions because it’s always possible to go wrong. The brain has two systems, map-based and route-based, so when you’re learning to find your way around, you use both. You start with one, and when you become familiar with the route, you switch. A global map-based system depends on knowing which way north is, knowing the broad layout, and knowing where the large-scale features are in relation to each other. For a route, all you need to know is the path you are on and then the next thing you need to do. So it’s easier, but you’re more prone to fatal mistakes. Terrible mountain accidents happen to people who followed a route but misinterpreted an instruction, or the instruction was faulty and they end up veering off the path.

What do you enjoy about walking?

When I walk, I do a lot of thinking about navigation: how is it that I know where I am or don’t know where I am? I live in St Albans, and we do a lot of walking around Hertfordshire. We can set off from our house and in 10 minutes reach open countryside, farms and forests. Britain has this network of fantastic walking routes that are mapped and well signposted to help you avoid getting lost.

Two tall trees in a snow covered fieldWhat’s your favourite

Country walk?
Ashridge estate, Hertfordshire (right).

City walk?
Holyrood palace to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh.

Ivinghoe Beacon, Ashridge Estate.

Map and compass.

Post-walk tipple?
A glass of nice crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc.