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Where is the Map in our Mind?

People with Developmental Topographical Disorientation are perpetually lost and disoriented – even in their neighbourhoods or homes. This rare neurological disorder gives us clues about how humans navigate and what parts of our brains are involved.

When I moved to Montreal, it took me a while to get oriented. After a few weeks of constantly checking Google Maps, I developed a mental image of key landmarks and how to navigate between them. I can now get to Jean-Talon market from Mont-Royal, or to McGill campus from the Lachine Canal because I understand where these places are in relation to each other. This feeling of being lost and disoriented but eventually gathering our bearings is nearly universal. Nearly universal, because there is a small number of people who remain in the ‘lost and disoriented’ stage their entire lives, no matter how long they’ve lived in a location. This condition is called Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD).

From insects to mammals, navigation is essential for a species' survival. Bees remember the distance and direction of pollen-rich flowers, then communicate that information to their colleagues using a special waggle dance. Squirrels find their hidden nuts months after they are buried using detailed mental maps and landmarks. London taxi drivers must pass a rigorous qualifying exam that requires near-perfect memory of all possible routes through the city. When we are surrounded by extraordinary examples of how organisms navigate, it’s easy to take for granted the complexity behind plotting a route from point A to point B. People with DTD are a stark exception. Learning about individuals with this disorder helps us understand if we really do have a map in our minds and, if so, where it is located.

Always Lost

One person with DTD described the condition as feeling ‘constantly lost’ despite being in familiar locations such as their neighbourhood, route to work, or in certain cases, their own home. Like most neuropsychological disorders, the severity of DTD varies from person to person and can sometimes be accompanied by problems with memory or focus.

The first recorded case of DTD was in a middle-aged Canadian woman. Every morning, she followed a strict and explicit set of instructions to get to her office. Take the bus, get off when she sees a certain landmark, and walk 30 metres to her office building. While she generally managed to get to work independently, she sometimes got disoriented on her way home and needed her father to pick her up. And if asked to take a route other than from home to work, she would be completely lost. When she learned that her office building was moving, which would cause months of disorientation, she sought professional help. Perhaps a neuropsychologist could help her understand this disorder and offer solutions.

Giuseppe Iaria, a neuropsychologist currently at the University of Calgary, gave this woman a series of tests designed to find what areas of navigation she struggled with. While it may seem simple on the surface, navigation is a complex task that involves many sensory and cognitive processes. First, we must be able to recognize our current surroundings, then remember these surroundings, understand where one destination is relative to another, plan a route, and finally update our plan in case we encounter a roadblock (literally or figuratively).

On some of the tests Dr. Iaria administered, the patient performed normally: she could copy a route after seeing an examiner complete it, identify landmarks, and follow verbal instructions to reach a destination. Where she did struggle was in creating a cognitive map of the environment. Dr. Iaria gave participants a two-phase assessment designed to quantify how well someone can form and use a cognitive map. In the first stage, or the ‘learning’ stage, participants freely explored a simplified virtual environment. Once the participant felt comfortable, they were tested by drawing a map of the virtual environment. If they drew an incorrect map, they were allowed to explore more until they could draw a correct map. This entire process – the exploring, assessment, and potential re-entry into the exploring phase – was timed and compared between participants. In the second stage, or the ‘usage’ stage, participants were given a series of destinations to which they had to navigate by the shortest route possible. The experimenter timed how long the participant took to figure out and complete each route.

In both phases of this assessment, the woman with DTD performed worse than control participants. She took three times longer to explore and correctly draw a map of the virtual environment and took significantly longer to figure out each test route. This shows that she struggled both to create a cognitive map and use it to navigate. Such a finding isn’t limited to one patient either; most people with DTD can’t form a cognitive map. Does this mean that humans really do have a map in their brains, and if so, can its location be found?

Not Quite Google Maps

Cognitive maps are not the same as the map in your car's glove compartment or the map you can load on your phone. These maps accurately show the distance between streets and buildings and don’t give special treatment to emotionally significant landmarks (like a childhood favourite ice cream shop). Instead, the map in our mind is egocentric and flexible. The map is egocentric (“self-center” in Latin) because we place ourselves at the center of the world and recall where landmarks are relative to us. The map is flexible because we constantly update it to absorb or eliminate destinations. For example, when I found a new favourite café, it joined the roster of ‘destinations’ in this cognitive map. It’s important to note that scientists still aren’t sure of the exact shape this map takes – ‘egocentric and flexible’ is simply a starting place to describe a complicated thing. Trying to locate this cognitive map, one we still don’t completely understand, is another challenge.

Many parts of the brain show activity when we navigate, and scientists are investigating nearly all of them. Two such brain areas that are especially active when humans are doing spatial tasks are the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region buried under layers of brain tissue, and the retrosplenial cortex, a section of the brain located approximately underneath the crown of your skull. In studies of individuals with DTD, scientists haven’t noticed any significant differences in the size or shape of the hippocampus or retrosplenial cortex. However, they did notice a difference in how neural activity in these regions was coordinated. In patients with DTD, activity in the hippocampus is less likely to be followed by activity in the retrosplenial cortex and vice versa. Neuroscientists refer to this as ‘functional connectivity’ or synchronizing activity between different brain areas. This finding suggests that how these brain areas talk to each other, not just what each brain area is made of, is essential for human navigation.

While research on people with DTD didn’t unlock the discovery of a new ‘navigation’ area of the brain, it did teach us an important lesson about how our mind works. Next time you successfully arrive at a destination, you may want to think twice about your hippocampus, retrosplenial cortex and, perhaps most importantly, all the connections between the two.


Maya McKeown recently graduated from McGill University with a Bachelors of Science (BSc) in Neuroscience and a minor in Mathematics.

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