X is for X marks the Spot

| May 1, 2014

As I was arriving at work today, I had a momentary feeling of slight panic. I had exited at a different staircase than I habitually do and was turned around. When I surfaced, I didn’t know how to get to work, and since class was beginning in 5 minutes, I was particularly anxious. Somehow my brain figured it out in a few seconds and I was on my way. However, it was through no discernible effort that I was able to get there via this previously unknown path – it just sort of happened. So, it got me to thinking:

Why don’t we get lost all the time?

How is it possible that we are able to orient ourselves even in unknown places?

Why don’t we end up like poor Alice?

Besides having more reliable physical laws (and fewer vanishing cats), it turns out that not everyone CAN or does know where they are.

http://www.radiolab.org/story/110165-you-are-here/

Since the age of 5, Sharon Roseman didn’t know where she was. She would often get lost on her own block, in her own backyard. As the story tells, she feared it was all in her head, and kept it a secret out of shame and guilt, instead developing elaborate coping mechanisms to live a mostly normal life.

Eventually, in her 30’s, she ran across an ad on tv, which led her to an Italian Nueroscientist who was able to diagnose her condition and others like hers, though yet unable to treat it.

There are these little cells, as he explains, in our brains which map everything we see and touch and sense, called “place cells” and look like this:

So, even if we are blindfolded, spun around and left alone, most of us will be able to reorient thanks to these. While I almost enjoy the feeling of being lost at times, I can imagine being lost all the time would be disconcerting, to say the least.

So, maybe we are closer to this than to Alice