• How We Orient

    Finding our way in spatial surroundings is one of the most complex behaviours that humans perform on a daily basis. It allows us to reach a target location while navigating through a range of environments, from feature-rich cities to natural landscapes that stretch the horizon. This complex phenomenon relies on different orientation strategies that individuals may use either selectively or in combination with one another.

    Landmark orientation refers to the use of environmental landmarks while navigating in familiar or unfamiliar surroundings. This strategy uses either directional information (e.g. left and right body turns) paired with selective environmental landmarks encountered along a route, or a mental representation of numerous landmarks that are spatially located with respect to one another. Landmarks can be environmental features in close proximity to the person such as shops and buildings on a street, or they can be distant features like a mountain range.

    A properly formed mental representation of the environment is known as a cognitive map. It allows individuals to reach any target location from anywhere in their surroundings. Humans can use information about their position in relation to environmental landmarks or the distances between landmarks to guide their way. Cognitive maps are the most flexible and efficient means of navigation. However, it should be noted that cognitive maps are not exactly like a physical map of an environment. Where a physical map should accurately portray metric information of distances and layout, there is evidence that cognitive maps often contain a set of characteristic 'distortions' that make them not exactly accurate metric representations of the environment.

    Orientation can also take place in the absence of environmental landmarks. For instance, individuals can navigate by memorizing sequences of left and right turns. However, this strategy can lead to errors when the number of turns needed to be memorized increases. Distances, speed and body turns are also processed through a primitive orientation mechanism known as path integration or dead reckoning. With path integration, the brain tracks distance and direction while updating onesí current location with respect to a starting point. This strategy is produced by the integration of vestibular, somatosensory, and proprioceptive information which people may use without being explicitly aware.

    Want to learn more? Consider purchasing "Why people get lost" by Paul Dudchenko, an accessible, scientific account of how we navigate the world around us. There are also some excellent TED talks on orientation and navigation: Neil Burgess' talk on How your brain tells you where you are (9 min), Daniel Wolpert's talk about the real reason you have a brain (20 min), and finally Aris Venetikidis Making Sense of Maps (17 min).