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What’s happening inside our brains when we navigate?

'Death by GPS' refers to the phenomenon of people following GPS directions into dangerous scenarios leading to their deaths.
'Death by GPS' refers to the phenomenon of people following GPS directions into dangerous scenarios leading to their deaths.

Hawaiian yoga teacher Amanda Eller attracted national attention when she disappeared into the rainforest in 2019, leaving her phone behind in her car parked at the trail entrance. She was discovered more than two weeks later on the verge of death.

What she thought would be a short hike went horribly astray.

While some people can easily navigate a trail, and find their way back if they get lost, others are likely to get horribly turned around and lose their way. Neuroscientists studying navigation have found that humans’ directional skills vary wildly.

Most of us also know how good we are at navigating. If you rate yourself on a scale of one to ten, a scientific test will likely give you about the same score.

Scientist and science writer Christopher Kemp rates himself a one out of ten. He sometimes gets lost in his own neighborhood. His lack of navigation skills align with a condition known as developmental topographical disorientation, or DTD, which is passed down genetically. His wife, in comparison, is excellent at finding her way, and can easily orient herself in new places. That stark contrast inspired an investigation into the neuroscience of navigation.

Why do some humans navigate better than others? What happens when we rely on GPS devices instead of our internal sense of direction? What’s going on inside our brains when we try to find our way?

Kemp helps us navigate these questions and more.

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