Do you have a sense of direction?

There is a lot of work going on in the navigation field.  All the researchers in this field are now clear that navigation takes place in the sub-conscious.  I made the mistake of thinking that native peoples who seemed to navigate perfectly without any aids could tell me how they did it, but language is in your frontal cortex so they could not describe what they were doing.

Clearly navigation requires the integration of many inputs.  All the best navigators have a “sense of direction”.  You can ask people if they have a sense of direction and you will get either of two answers:

  • Yes and I rely on it
  • No

This is strange as you would expect a lot of people to say they were not sure, or “perhaps?” but no, it seems to be a binary yes or no.

My friends in the army all say that they are very aware who has a sense of direction as this really is something which can mean life or death.

Clearly people who have a sense of direction know they have.  However, I think that there are unconscious cues being used at the same time.  They are using cues such as the the direction of the sun and the time of day. They use smell where it is useful and they use landmarks too.

Work on homing Pigeons concurs with this.

It is strange that people who have good innate navigational skills in Northern Hemisphere fail utterly in the Southern.

There is a whole lot of interesting research going on for instance:

Kristaps Sokolovskis1,2, Giuseppe Bianco1, Mikkel Willemoes1,2, Diana Solovyeva3, Staffan Bensch1,2and Susanne Åkesson1,4*Have produced a paper, unfortunately based on a tiny sample of three willow warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus yakutensi) migrating from Far East Russia to East Africa.

The researchers looked at various compass mechanisms to describe their routes but none really fitted.  The birds that do these long migrations do not go on straight bearings but go to stop off places to refuel (eat and lay down fat) on the way. No-one knows how they do it.

My conclusion is that classic mechanistic Science is really struggling to answer the questions relating to Animal Navigation.  Please remember that we are animals too.  We need to look further.  But it is true the researchers such Prof Kate Jeffery at UCL London and Benjamin J. Clark of the University of New Mexico and their teams are discovering where navigational skills live in the brain Hippocampus and Retrosplenial-Parietal Network.  All of these are closely linked spatially and in the sub-conscious part of the brain.

We will bring you the latest ideas as they evolve but the cuckoo conundrum still exists. How does a young fledgling cuckoo, whose parents are long gone, set of and find its wintering grounds in the Congo basin?

Richard Nissen

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