We’re Only Beginning to Understand How Our Brains Make Maps

All our instincts as “place” designers are well founded  it seems –  all of the fine details, ambiences and local differences we cherish are really important to how we navigate space and understand where we are and wether it is safe, dangerous or cool to be here – the latest neuroscience, albeit with rats,  is giving us new ammo in a our tangle with both virtual and the banal retail worlds. By Emily Badger at Atlantic Cities

The more scientists learn about how our brains construct cognitive maps of space, the more we may learn about how to design those spaces.

About 40 years ago, researchers first began to suspect that we have neurons in our brains called “place cells.” They’re responsible for helping us (rats and humans alike) find our way in the world, navigating the environment with some internal sense of where we are, how far we’ve come, and how to find our way back home. All of this sounds like the work of maps. But our brains do impressively sophisticated mapping work, too, and in ways we never actively notice.

Every time you walk out your front door and past the mailbox, for instance, a neuron in your hippocampus fires as you move through that exact location – next to the mailbox – with a real-world precision down to as little as 30 centimeters. When you come home from work and pass the same spot at night, the neuron fires again, just as it will the next morning. “Each neuron cares for one place,” saysMayank Mehta, a neurophysicist at UCLA. “And it doesn’t care for any other place in the world.”

This is why these neurons are called “place cells.” And, in constantly shuffling patterns, they generate our cognitive maps of the world. Exactly how they do this, though, has remained a bit of an enigma. The latest research from Mehta and his colleagues, published this month in the online edition of the journal Science, provides more clues. It now appears as if all of the sensory cues around us – the smell of a pizzeria, the feel of a sidewalk, the sound of a passing bus – are much more integral to how our brains map our movement through space than scientists previously believed.

And the more scientists learn about how our brains construct cognitive maps of space, the more we may learn about how to design those spaces – streets, neighborhoods, cities – in the first place. Or, rather, we may learn more about the consequences of how we’ve built them so far. How could any urban planner, for starters, not love the idea that “place” is embedded in the brain?

Read More

Journal: Of brains and cities; neuroscience and cultures of decision-making

A report from CITY OF SOUND on the applications of an old analogy now often discredited that cities are an “organism”  here discussed in a forum with representatives from both neuroscience and from the engineering side of the urban sustainability disciplines. A useful classification of the idea of the city as a metabolic organism  is UCL’s Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Metabolism: A review on the literature A few extracts from Dan Hills report

Brain juxtaposed with Hamburg, from Emergence by Steven Johnson
From Emergence, by Steven Johnson

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to take part in an event called the “North House Salon” (see previous entry: Passport Control to Pimlico). These salons are organised by Dr Sarah Caddick, neuroscience advisor to Lord David Sainsbury (ex-Minister for Science and Innovation in the UK government) and theGatsby Foundation, and bring together various “expert groups” with select groups of neuroscientists. It was an absolute privilege to share a conversation with some of the UK’s leading scientists—for a start, it’s always fascinating to see another discipline at work, and we were also fortunate that they were all great communicators as well as great researchers

As Chris put it in his intro, we do have an increasingly shared vocabulary and way of thinking emerging about the systems of the brain and the systems of cities. This may partly be due to biomimicry shaping design discourse, partly the vogue for “smart cities” strategies, and partly because of recent advances in “brain science” (note: neuroscience is to some extent now seen as part of a continuum including behavioural psychology, behavioural economics, neurology, developmental biology and others. I’ll be using the term “brain science” as short-hand for all that. At one point, we tried to discuss the limits of neuroscience. We didn’t get very far.)

I briefly mentioned our own smart services work on Low2No, but my core point was that we need to step back and think about the question we’re trying to ask here—why were we gathered here today? I suggested that ideas themselves are not particularly relevant; that the idea of optimising urban infrastructure as a no-brainer (an odd phrase to use in this setting, I admitted.) (I also nodded to Zeki’s paper, which I’d learnt a lot from.)

But then I made the claim that the city is not psychological or biological, but cultural, and that if anything is holding us back from “better cities” (if that’s our goal), it’s not ideas or technology, but our cultures of decision-making (which is the focus of our work in the Strategic Design Unit at Sitra.)

The emerging discussion I personally found most interesting—and tested on Geoffrey West and others, who were receptive—was this idea of how we make public decisions. Given our cultures of decision-making, from the individual to the institutional, were designed in another time, is it any wonder these systems are struggling to deliver the kind of complex, longer-term, interdependent decisions we need to make today? Equally, we now know rather more about the way the individual and society works, and so have some idea that fundamental systems within the brain, such as the limbic system, seem to preference short-term decisions, for example, amongst a series of other unhelpful characteristics.

So the thought occurred: how can we better design our approach to public decision-making, in such a way that the structures and cultures mitigates against our inherent “limitations”? (Please note the inverted commas there, indicating the obvious value judgement.)

Read More