Out in Front: Of Rats, the Mind, World Series, and Truth

November 1, 2014  - By
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Image: GPS World

My colleague Janice Partyka wrote a provocative blog in the Wireless/LBS Insider on discovery of the brain’s inner GPS, which won three scientists a Nobel Prize for medicine. The piece struck me so forcefully in the hippocampus, locus of my location sensibility, that I was tempted to place it here verbatim. That would not justify me, however, in drawing my pay, so I add my two cents worth. Literally. Two cents worth.

Partyka’s theme: “How does our brain understand where our body is in space, and navigate us from home to work?” She wrote that one scientist found “a type of nerve cell in the brain’s hippocampus, our short-term memory storage bin, was always activated when a rat was at a certain place in a room. As a rat ran through a maze, a particular sequence of individual neurons fired. Other nerve cells were activated when the rat was positioned elsewhere. O’Keefe concluded that these ‘place cells’ formed a map of the room. 

“When the rats slept, the same sequences of place cells that were fired earlier in the day fired again. Researchers think that this replay helps to transfer the rat’s memory of the maze from the hippocampus into long-term storage. Place cells also attach to memories of a particular location. When sitting at a table, a person or maybe even a rat might remember a pizza that was eaten at that spot. 

“Many decades later, the Mosers discovered another component of the brain’s positioning system. They identified ‘grid cells,’ which are thought to act like a dead-reckoning system and generate a coordinate system to allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. The grid cells create a location to put place cells and organize position locations. Rats running around an open floor (hopefully not mine), will fire neurons that map out a grid of equilateral triangles that serve as a spatial map. Grid cells can function in complete darkness, without visual cues. Together, place and grid cells make it possible to determine position and to navigate.

“While place and grid cells were first discovered in rats, studies using brain imaging indicate that they also occur in humans.”

As I sit here in mid-October listening to the World Series (for some deeply buried irrationality, sleeping in the Americana of my mind, I believe that baseball is better on radio than on TV), I visualize the athletes lunging and spearing and leaping about the field of play, barely having to look because they know the cells and grids of it so well. They just react to the ball and — smack! — it arrives in the first baseman’s glove. And what of the pitcher, who knows the strike zone so totally, so certainly, so inwardly, at 60 feet’s distance from his outstretched arm, that he can navigate a small spheroid precisely, on a curved path no less, to its lower left corner?

Technology enhances our sense of location, as we in particular know so well. But technology can be fooled, perhaps more easily than the brain. Could the brain be convinced that its body was speeding towards Libya when in reality it placidly cruised northward in mid-Adriatic? Imagine how your brain would fare against the spoofer in this issue’s cover story. 

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Alan Cameron is the former editor-at-large of GPS World magazine.

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