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Is Your Sense of Direction Innate?

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Some people are like homing pigeons: Drop them off anywhere, and they’ll find their way around. Other people, though, can’t tell when they’re holding a map upside down. Are the directionally challenged just bad learners? Or are some of us just lucky to be born with a strong internal compass?

Not all of your navigational skills are learned. There’s evidence that your sense of direction is innate. (Some of it, at least.) Your brain is packaged with special navigational neurons—head-direction cells, place cells, and grid cells—and they help program your internal GPS when you’re just a wee tot.  

In 2010, two different studies (here and here) explored whether rats were born with a sense of direction. Scientists implanted electrodes in the brains of baby rodents and tracked their neural activity. Although the rats were newborns, the researchers discovered that their head-direction cells (which help us recognize the direction we’re facing) were fully mature. The rats, it seemed, were born with an intrinsic sense of direction. And they hadn’t even opened their eyes yet!

Humans, of course, are not rats. But the hippocampus—the brain region responsible for navigation and spatial memory—is similar in most mammals. If the rat’s internal compass develops this way, then it’s likely that a human’s compass does, too.

Off the Grid

If we’re born with a sense of direction, then why are some people so good at getting lost? The scientists found that the two other cells—place and grid cells—developed within the first month. Place cells are thought to help us form a mental map, while grid cells help us navigate new and unfamiliar places. The two cells interact—and that’s where the trouble might be.

In a 2013 study from Nature, participants played a video game that required them to shuttle back and forth between virtual locations. Monitoring their brains, the scientists found that grid cells helped the gamers keep track of their whereabouts—even without landmarks. According to researcher Michael Kahana and the Daily Mail, it’s a “reasonable assumption that differences in how grid cells work explain why some people have a better sense of direction than others.”

So rejoice, navigationally challenged people! If you’ve ever gotten lost pulling out of your driveway, your may now blame your grid cells.

Of course, the nature-nurture argument isn’t black and white here. Although this neural network is hardwired from the time you’re born, it matures thanks to your interactions with the world. These connections are like the prefab wiring in your house, while your experiences with the environment are like the solder that makes that wiring stronger. Both help.  

Will a GPS mess with this wiring?

A GPS may save your behind now and then, but it may meddle with your navigational skills if you depend on it to get everywhere. We naturally get around by using a process called “dead reckoning.” Basically, you estimate where you are by comparing your location to a reference point. You use a mental map to make these estimates. Problem is, when you rely on a GPS, that mental map can get foggy.

A 2005 study at the University of Nottingham asked people to drive to a specific spot. Some of them were given step-by-step directions, while others were handed an old-fashioned map. At the end of their journey, they were asked to sketch out the route they traveled. The folks who were given instructions drew the most inaccurate maps. People who used a GPS to walk around a city faced the same problem.

Two things are to blame. First, when you depend on a GPS, you’re more likely to ignore your surroundings. You don’t memorize as many landmarks because you don’t need to. As a result, your mental map is less detailed. That’s why people who depend on a GPS sometimes panic during detours. By updating the map on their GPS, they fail to update the map in their brain.

The second reason isn’t as earth shattering. A GPS usually prevents you from huge blunders (disclaimer: OK, sometimes not). People who navigate on their own are more likely to screw up. Thankfully, the experience of committing a gaffe actually improves their mental map. Making mistakes remains one of the best ways to learn. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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