The frontal lobe controls movement, however, the region of the brain specifically in control of orientation and navigating the spatial environment is the hippocampus. The hippocampus helps determine where you are, how you got to that location, and how to navigate to the next destination or landmark.
A recent study showed that reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways, with London taxi drivers having a larger and more developed hippocampus than ordinary drivers. On the flip side the use of technology, GPS and navigating devices has meant that some people rely too heavily on technology and when the need arises to orientate themselves via a map, they are completely incapable. The incidents of lost hikers and bush walkers keeps increasing as people are under-utilising and not exercising their hippocampus, making it more difficult for people to naturally orientate themselves.
Orientation is important to feeling confident and reassured within your environment. Orientation happens within your mind when it is aware of three particular dimensions. The first dimension is that of time, knowing what day, month or year it is. Time can also be expressed through access to daylight, therefore capturing a sense of what time of day it is. Natural ventilation can also help you understand the temperature, allowing one to determine the weather and subsequently the season. The second dimension is that of ‘place’, understanding where you are. This can be determined by a level above ground or a landmark or simply by visibility, differentiating elements in the physical environment. The third is the dimension of person, that is, who you are and why you’re there. Expressing functionality is a clear and reassuring ingredient to intuitive orientation. Is this place intimate or public? Do I move fast or slow? Is this a place of work or entertainment? When one or more of these dimensions are unavailable it can lead to problems with orientation, which in turn leads to disorientation. Typically, disorientation is first in time, then in place and finally in person.
My brother-in-law is placed third, nationally in the M45 Australian Orienteering rankings and has taken the act of orientation to the extreme level. He often spends 24 hours in the wilderness with only a map, a compass, a water bottle and a protein bar. I asked him how he navigates his way through unfamiliar territory, and he explained when he sees a map for the first time he tries to visualize the landscape through its defining landmarks. He looks for a creek or a rock, a change in steepness or vegetation and then uses those features as a tool to guide him.
“I use those things as ‘handrail’ features to guide me through the landscape ... if you know that a control marker is 1 km away you break it into smaller segments and tick each one off as you go along. These markers act to reassure me that I’m going in the right direction.” Greg Morcom
He is making a mental image of the environment first, ‘cognitive mapping’ based on all his experience, knowledge and memories enabling him to interpret the landscape. Cognitive mapping is also a data base of stored memories that we recall when moving through space, we piece together the most memorable aspects of our experiences of a space and use them as touch stones, breadcrumb trails. The most memorable cities are successful because of the richness of the journeys we experience.