How Does Our Environment Dictate The Way We Navigate?

The way we make our way through our environment and determine our position in space differs depending on where we are. If we are somewhere with a lot of visual features (such as a city block filled with buildings and signs), we might rely on these features to determine how fast we are moving and our position. If we are somewhere devoid of these types of features, like a desert, we might rely more on our own physical motion (such as the number of steps we have taken) to determine our position.

When we rely on objects to give us clues about how fast we are traveling, the direction we are headed, and our current position, we know that some objects will give us a more accurate depiction of where we are than others. It makes more sense to judge our position based on the location of a building than it does to judge it based on the position of the moon. Our brains can assign objects different “weights” when determining which will be most helpful in the navigation process, but how this process occurs and how our brains switch between using visual cues and locomotion cues remains largely unknown.

A new study published in Nature Neuroscience from NYSCF – Robertson Investigator and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine Lisa Giocomo, PhD, explores how the brain switches which cues it uses to navigate through an environment.

To investigate this process, the researchers observed mice travelling through a virtual reality environment. The team found that when the speed of the visual scene increased, the mouse’s behavior and neural activity started to care more about visual cues rather than locomotion cues.

The team then engineered a computational model to mathematically determine at which points the mouse was using locomotion cues vs. visual cues to navigate. This model will help the team understand how these cues then integrate into the brain to help us form an estimate of our position in space.




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