Lost? Evidence That Sense Of Direction Is Innate

Katherine Harmon in Scientific American:

Not everyone has a perfect sense of direction, whether they would like to admit it or not. But two new studies have found that even baby rats have a basic spatial framework in their brains ready to use as soon as they leave the nest for the first time—which is much earlier than had previously been documented.

The findings reveal that not all sense of space is learned. They show that at least some of that sense is innate, “that the basic constituents of the cognitive map develop independently of spatial experience or might even precede it,” noted the authors of one of the new studies, both published online June 17 in Science.

For the two independent studies researchers record rats’ neuronal firings as soon as newborn pups opened their eyes and began to explore their surroundings. Both teams were surprised to find adult-level cell function in some of the directional regions.

At this age, “the animals would not yet have had a chance to explore the environment beyond their nest,”Francesca Cacucci, a researcher at the Institute of Behavioral Neuroscience at University College London and co-author of one of the papers, writes in an e-mail. “This suggests strongly that sense of direction is independent of spatial experience.”

And because the mammalian hippocampus is relatively consistent in its make-up across species, these lab rat–based findings likely mirror a similar developmental trajectory in humans.

Other abilities, such as face perception or language use, are thought to be innate. But “space is such a basic cognitive function, and to have it be partly innate is really interesting and groundbreaking work,” says Linda Palmer, a project scientist at the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, who coauthored a perspectives essay accompanying the two studies in Science.

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