Nobel Prize Bridges Neuroscience with Architecture

Turns out, we all have a built-in GPS that helps us find our way in our surroundings.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was recently given to John O’Keefe and the husband and wife team May-Britt and Edward I. Moser for their discovery of cells that “constitute a positioning system in the brain."

“The sense of place and the ability to navigate are fundamental to our existence,” said the Nobel committee in its announcement [PDF]. “The sense of place gives a perception of position in the environment. During navigation, it is interlinked with a sense of distance that is based on motion and knowledge of previous positions.”

This human positioning system was first discovered in 1971 by O’Keefe, who concluded that there are “place cells” in the brain that form a map of a room. The Mosers expanded on this research and identified another type of nerve cells they call “grid cells,” which generate coordinates and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding.

The discoveries, the Nobel committee said, “have solved a problem that has occupied philosophers and scientists for centuries—how does the brain create a map of the space surrounding us and how can we navigate our way through a complex environment?”

“Wayfinding” Challenges

This neuroscience of “wayfinding,” or the ability to navigate from place to place, was recently highlighted at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA). The findings are an important discovery for neuroscientists, architects, and urban planners, according to ANFA, bringing together multiple disciplines to create better living spaces.

“Unfortunately, a lot of architectural designs turn out to be tough to navigate, particularly those of institutional facilities such as government buildings and hospitals, where people are often lost and inefficient in finding the desired office or clinic, writes [PDF] ANFA Board Member Eduardo Macagno, Ph.D., from the University of California, San Diego. “Many urban configurations seem to be designed to befuddle us and to test our navigational abilities rather than to facilitate wayfinding.”

About the Author

I love sharing stories about people, professions, and organizations that are making a difference. After starting my career as a news journalist, I joined the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), where I developed a passion for insights on the changing workplace and emerging issues in people management. At CareerBuilder, my focus turned to online career management and personal branding. Most recently, at the Georgetown University of Continuing Studies, I was inspired by professionals and educators devoted to lifelong learning. I am thrilled to be part of NCARB and a new explorer of the exciting world of architecture. Find me on Twitter @sequencecomm.