Probably this has happened to you before. You drove into a car park, did your shopping or went to a business appointment, and when you came back you could not remember where your car was. You wondered why you could have forgotten. But actually, it is pretty surprising that we usually remember because it is a rather complex task. So how do we remember where we parked our car? How does spatial memory work? How is it represented in the neurons in our brain?
In a TED Talk, Neil Burgess sheds light onto this question. He explains that for communicating, neurons send little pulses or spikes of electricity to each other. How do we know where we are? Different place cells fire when we are in different places. The neurons create a map of the environment, and for doing so, they use distances and directions of boundaries around. There are cells that respond to boundaries. And how do we find our way back when we are going somewhere? Heading and direction is used for this. When we move, we put a grid of firing locations into our environment, similar to the latitude and longitude lines on a map. To find our way back, we use pattern matching, we move around so that the firing pattern of your cells best matches the stored pattern.
How can we make sure we don’t forget again where we parked our car? Attention is likely to be important. When you get out of your car, actively look at your environment. We learned that distances and directions of boundaries are important, so memorise for example where walls or fences are, how far they are from your car, and what their direction is. Do the same thing when moving away from your car. This will make it easier for the neurons in your brain to recognise the landmarks when you come back. It can’t do so when you’re absorbed in thought and don’t look at your environment, thinking about the groceries you need to get or the things you need to talk about with your business partner.