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Spatial Navigation: NeuroArchitecture and the Brain's GPS

By Andréa de Paiva

Who has never felt lost in the hallways of a hospital or a school? Or in the streets of a major city when they didn’t have a GPS device? Our survival as a species is directly linked to our capacity of orientation in spaces: we need to recognize safe and familiar territories where we can relax and, also, be able to move through unfamiliar and threatening areas where we have to stay alert. In today’s article we will discuss the importance of spatial orientation and how NeuroArchitecture can help architects create places (buildings and cities) that facilitate people’s sense of orientation


According to a study by the Spatial Thinking Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, spatial cognition not only varies from person to person, but it is also different in men and women [1]. The study states that men have a higher tendency to take shortcuts and arrive faster, while women follow learned routes. Even so, our brain is plastic [2], that is, it transforms itself while we use it. In that sense, if we train it to better orient itself, that skill should improve. On the other hand, if we lay back and start relying on a GPS to navigate through places, we won’t be training our brains. That way, when the GPS doesn’t work, we’ll have an even harder time locating ourselves in spaces. But after all, how does the spatial orientation process happens in the brain? Scientists John O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014, discovered what is called the “Brain GPS” system. That’s right, the 2014 Nobel Prize in medicine was in the field of neuroscience applied to architecture. These scientists found two areas in the brain that are directly linked to the capacity of navigation: the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex.

Scientist John O’Keefe, in 1971, discovered the first clue to reveal our Brain’s GPS system: the place cells [3]. He recorded the activity of nervous cells in the hippocampus while rats moved through spaces. In that study, he realized that different cells were activated according to the rats’ position in the space. Thus, the brain formed an internal map that allowed the rats to identify their location.

May-Britt e Edvard Moser, on their turn, studied a region in the brain close to the hippocampus, the entorhinal cortex [4]. They realized that nervous cells in that region weren’t only activate in one place, but when rats passed by various locations. Each of these cells were activated in unique patterns and, combined, they formed a system of coordinates. That system of grid cells is responsible for spatial navigation. Together, the place cells system and the grid cells system make our orientation and navigation through environments possible, acting as our Brain GPS. But what are the impacts of a disorienting space in the behavior of people who pass through them? Before anything else, orientation through space is directly linked to our territorial instinct. That is a very primitive behavior and one that doesn’t happen only in humans. Various types of animals mark their territory, such as felines and wolves. The brain was programmed to recognize territory and, consequently, relax in order to save resources. On the other hand, in an unknown place the risk of encountering threats is higher, therefore the brain automatically puts us in a state of alert. That is, tension rises and we become more prepared to react to dangers that may arise (fight or flight behavior).

 Tiger marking territory. Source: Tigers!
Tiger marking territory. Source: Tigers!

With the heightened tension and the preparation to enter the fight or flight state, other cognitive functions may decline. We  become momentarily less intelligent, less creative and even our memory doesn’t work that well. That’s why it’s so common, when we get lost in major urban centers, to panic and get even more lost. When we panic, our brain’s amygdala becomes more active and we have a hard time remembering where we came from, recalculating the route and memorizing the way we’ve been going through.

And how can NeuroArchitecture help architects create less disorienting spaces? The answer is simpler than it seems: our brain was hardwired to live in nature. It was made for locating in that type of scenery, whether by the position of the sun or the stars, or by geographical references, such as a river, a higher mountain, a big rock etc. When we create buildings where all the hallways are uniform, we take away any reference that could help us locate ourselves. The same goes for cities where streets and buildings are all very similar. We need to bring these characteristics of nature to the spaces we create. Whether through the use of colors, textures, layouts, forms, proportion of elements etc, architects must create characteristics that serve as references that people can easily recognize.

Spatial orientation is an area in which neuroscience can contribute greatly to architecture. It’s no accident that it is the only field of NeuroArquiteture that has ever won a Nobel Prize [5]. That’s why it is fundamental that architects take the insights of NeuroArchitecture into consideration, in order to create less disorienting environments. Even so, like all areas of applied neuroscience, it’s a very complex subject and one that doesn’t end in this article. That is why we will soon discuss other aspects of spatial navigation and its relation to NeuroArchitecture.

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