It is a mystery to me and my family and friends how I know where I am in a car.
I used to work as a counsellor with newly-diagnosed people with MS in Manchester, and I would get there from the railway station by taxi. I knew all the shortcuts, and would instruct drivers where to turn. Nicely, of course. New drivers would look at my white stick, and ignore me, but the regulars humoured me, and we got there quicker.
How did I do this? I can’t see the road, for heaven’s sake!
My wife and I may be driving somewhere I went to forty years ago. Somewhere like Wales, for example. The road will bend to the left, the shadow of a tree will darken the light for an instant, and I will suddenly say, “There’s a café coming up on the right.” It’s not a guess; it’s something I remember, something I know.
I don’t know how this happens, but it does. Enough for me to be the navigator on car journeys, provided the driver reads the road signs. I don’t do the impossible!
But I’m blind!#
I was a good map reader when I was young and sighted. I would read an Ordnance Survey map like a novel, and using a compass on trackless moorland was a delight. The buzz on hitting the summit cairn of Bleaklow in thick fog was memorable and satisfying in a way that choosing the right turn-off on a motorway just isn’t.
If you put me down anywhere, the first thing I want to know is Where is North? When I know which way is north I can orientate myself on some sort of internal map. When I’m lost it’s as though all the magnetic lines of force in my brain are all muddled up and tangled. When they straighten out into long, skeins of combed hair, I know where I am
John O’Keefe, the founder of Cognitive Neuro-science, won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of specific cells in the brain called “place cells”. These are located in the deep hippocanthus, and are involved in creating an internal cognitive map, so we know where we are. Even if we can’t see where we are! O’Keefe used to shoot balls into baskets with his eyes closed while he was on the move to test his hypothesis.
I’ve put a picture into this post that is not mine, for a change. It is by Stuart Layton, for whose permission to use it I am grateful.
A rat is in a twisting tunnel. It needs to know where it is, and the sparks of colours are its place cells firing.
It is too trite and facile to say that I sometimes feel like that rat, but it is good to know we all know where we are. I hope to surprise many more taxi drivers before my place cells decide to shuffle off somewhere else!