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See Inside April 2005

Finding Our Way

The human positioning system helps us navigate an unfamiliar city and may underlie general memory and thought


"Drive 200 yards, then turn right," says the car's computer voice. You relax in the driver's seat, follow the directions and reach your destination without error. It's certainly nice to have the Global Positioning System (GPS) to direct you to within a few yards of your goal. Yet if the satellite service's digital maps become even slightly outdated, you can become lost. then you have to rely on the ancient human skill of navigating in three-dimensional space.

Luckily, your biological finder has an important advantage over GPS: it does not go awry if only one part of the guidance system goes wrong, because it works in various ways. You can ask questions of people on the sidewalk. Or follow a street that looks familiar. Or rely on a navigational rubric: "If I keep the East River on my left, I will eventually cross 34th Street." The human positioning system is flexible and capable of learning. Anyone who knows the way from point A to point B--and from A to C--can probably figure out how to get from B to C, too.

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