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Q: Brain functions ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Brain functions
Category: Health > Medicine
Asked by: jenbrooks-ga
List Price: $10.00
Posted: 06 Jul 2004 08:41 PDT
Expires: 05 Aug 2004 08:41 PDT
Question ID: 370294
Which part of the brain deals with a human's sense of direction?
Subject: Re: Brain functions
Answered By: sublime1-ga on 06 Jul 2004 12:03 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars

Direction is, of course, a broad topic, involving many senses.
Humans, e.g., do not have the type of magnetic sensing which
birds possess and utilize in migrating. Termed 'magnetoreception',
this sense allows birds to detect the direction of the Earth?s 
magnetic field. A recent (May, 2004) study by researchers at 
the University of California at Irvine:

"...suggests that the most likely mechanism for magnetic
 orientation in these birds involves tiny changes to
 magnetically sensitive chemical reactions."

In humans, our sense of direction with regard to the 
immediate environment is obviously dependent, to a large
extent, on vision and hearing.

A blind person will come to develop and depend on their
hearing in order to navigate effectively. There have 
even been documentaries on TV of one blind man who 
developed this sense to such acuity that he could ride
a bicycle through a familiar neighborhood.

There's an interesting article on the ChinaStrategies
website titled, 'Zen and the art of self defense for the
blind', which outlines exercises for the development of
greater auditory acuity, which includes a quote by
Eugene Marais, from his work, 'The Soul of the Ape':

"A hypnotised person could hear a constant hissing sound
 at 230 yards, although non-hypnotized people typically
 could not detect the sound until they were within 30
 yards of the source."

More on the page:

For most of us, vision plays a dominant role in our sense
of orientation, both in regards to immediate input and in
our sense of memory of where things are.

An article on Wikipedia discusses the role of the hippocampus
and some unique cells called 'place' cells, which are neurons
in the hippocampus which have spatial firing fields:

"Some cells fire when the animal finds itself in a particular
 location, regardless of direction of travel, while most are
 at least partially sensitive to head direction and direction
 of travel. In rats some cells, termed splitter cells, may
 alter their firing depending on the animal's recent past
 (retrospective) or expected future (prospective). Different
 cells fire at different locations, so that by looking at the
 firing of the cells alone, it becomes possible to tell where
 the animal is. Place cells have now been seen in humans
 involved in finding their way around in a virtual reality town."

What better way to guage the areas of the brain involved in
direction and navigation than to study the brains of taxi drivers.

"One study showed that part of the hippocampus is larger in taxi
 drivers than in the general public, and that more experienced
 drivers have bigger hippocampi."

In a more formal dissertation on the subject, Larry Normansell,
Professor of Neuroscience at Muskingum College in Ohio, in his
work, 'Liberal Education: An Exercise Program for the Brain',
located on the college's website, says:

"Geometry, our sense of direction, our ability to form mental
 images or to see complex spatial patterns, and our esthetic
 appreciation of music seems to be organized in right parietal
 and occipital regions. Spatial, musical and bodily-kinesthetic
 intelligences may be one way of thinking about the product of
 brain activity in this region."

"In addition to sensory material going to the cortex for
 processing, it also goes to a more primitive area of the
 brain called the hippocampus. This circuitry maintains
 that information in an active form, allowing the brain to
 sustain it through time. Thus it functions as the site for
 short-term memory. The information leaving the hippocampus
 gets widely distributed to diverse but interrelated cortical
 areas where the tissue and/or its activity is permanently
 altered, resulting in a more long-term storage capability.
 Thus specific regions of the cortex not only process,
 organize and respond to sensory input forming mental
 representations of the environment, but store that
 information across time. In this way, all new information
 is processed within the context of all the information the
 individual has processed in the past."

A more simplified layout of brain function by area is on where sense of direction is listed under
the 'Non-dominant Hemisphere (usually the right side)':

Please do not rate this answer until you are satisfied that  
the answer cannot be improved upon by way of a dialog  
established through the "Request for Clarification" process. 
A user's guide on this topic is on skermit-ga's site, here: 

Additional information may be found from an exploration of
the links resulting from the Google searches outlined below.

Searches done, via Google:

"area of the brain" direction

"area of the brain" "sense of direction"

hippocampus "taxi drivers"
jenbrooks-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Thanks for the information and links.  You did answer my question more
thoroughly than expected.

Subject: Re: Brain functions
From: purkinje-ga on 14 Jul 2004 17:20 PDT
The hippocampus is involved with memory, especially short-term memory
and conversion to long-term memory, and I remember from one of my
neuro classes an experiment that showed that the hippocampus of rats
specifically helped with their spatial memory and locating food, etc.

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