Understanding why we behave the way we do

Kate Jeffery, the group’s founding member and Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London, describes her vision on how everyone can benefit from improved collaboration between industry and academia.

About 50 years ago, neuroscientists at University College London began to uncover a remarkable system in the brain that seems to have the task of helping a person figure out where they are, and how to get to where they want to go – our ‘cognitive’ or mental map. Central to the system is the hippocampus, located deep in the brain, which is known to be important not just for navigation but also for memory – for some reason, nature has seen fit to attach our memories to our map of space. Among other things, this explains why going back to a place not visited for some time often brings a rush of long-buried memories flooding back.

Navigation does not just depend on the hippocampus, however. In the intervening several decades, important new components of this system have been uncovered. One of these creates the “sense of direction”, which is needed not just for navigation but also for simply recognising a place. London travellers will be familiar with the feeling of emerging from a familiar underground station but not understanding where you are, because you came out via the wrong exit and couldn’t make sense of the buildings even though they were all familiar. Another component, the grid cell system, has the task of determining how far and in what direction you have moved, which helps the hippocampus update its estimate of where you now are. These are just a few of a vast number of brain areas that help with this most important of faculties. The navigation system is now recognised to be so important that it was acknowledged by the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded to the three scientists who made the most important breakthroughs.

Navigation remains critical to daily life even in the modern world with our smartphones and sat navs, and yet despite much work in both neuroscience and psychology over these years, relatively little about what we know has found its way into the outside world to inform design of navigational aids. We hope to change this by creating a stronger dialogue between academia and industry. One forum for achieving this will be the new Cognition and Navigation special interest group which has recently been established within the Royal Institute of Navigation. The launch of this group was marked by a symposium called Urban Wayfinding in June, focusing on how people navigate their way around cities and how our research might be able to facilitate this. As a group we plan to hold regular symposia to share the latest scientific knowledge and technological advancements with the wider industry. Working closely with partners like Maynard, we’re very much looking forward to the amazing navigation opportunities that will be opened up through this initiative.

Twitter handle @CogNav_RIN