Navigation and the “inner GPS”


Navigation is the most elemental of our skills — “Where am I?” was the first question a creature had to answer — and it’s the one that gives us our tightest connection to the world. The loss of navigational sense is also often the first sign of a mind in decay. Last week, the Nobel Committee announced that this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine will go to three scientists — John O’Keefe and the couple May-Britt and Edvard Moser — whose work has revealed the intricate biological underpinnings of our talent for getting around. O’Keefe discovered the brain’s place cells, which map out particular places, and the Mosers discovered the brain’s grid cells, which give us a general sense of spatial reckoning.

Here’s how I sum up the work of O’Keefe and the Mosers in the “World and Screen” chapter of The Glass Cage:

In a landmark study conducted at University College London in the early 1970s, John O’Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky monitored the brains of lab rats as the rodents moved about an enclosed area. As a rat became familiar with the space, individual neurons in its hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays a central role in memory formation—would begin to fire every time the animal passed a certain spot. These location-keyed neurons, which the scientists dubbed “place cells” and which have since been found in the brains of other mammals, including humans, can be thought of as the signposts the brain uses to mark out a territory. Every time you enter a new place, whether a city square or the kitchen of a neighbor’s house, the area is quickly mapped out with place cells. The cells, as O’Keefe has explained, appear to be activated by a variety of sensory signals, including visual, auditory, and tactile cues, “each of which can be perceived when the animal is in a particular part of the environment.”

More recently, in 2005, a team of Norwegian neuroscientists, led by the couple Edvard and May-Britt Moser, discovered a different set of neurons involved in charting, measuring, and navigating space, which they named “grid cells.” Located in the entorhinal cortex, a region closely related to the hippocampus, the cells create in the brain a precise geographic grid of space, consisting of an array of regularly spaced, equilateral triangles. The Mosers compared the grid to a sheet of graph paper in the mind, on which an animal’s location is traced as it moves about. Whereas place cells map out specific locations, grid cells provide a more abstract map of space that remains the same wherever an animal goes, providing an inner sense of dead reckoning. (Grid cells have been found in the brains of several mammal species; recent experiments with brain-implanted electrodes indicate that humans have them too.) Working in tandem, and drawing on signals from other neurons that monitor bodily direction and motion, place and grid cells act, in the words of the science writer James Gorman, “as a kind of built-in navigation system that is at the very heart of how animals know where they are, where they are going and where they have been.”

If “Where am I?” is the first question a creature had to answer, that suggests something else about us, something very important: memory and navigational sense may, at their source, be one and the same. The first things an animal had to remember were locational: Where’s my home? Where’s that source of food? Where are those predators? So memory may have emerged to aid in navigation. That’s something that both O’Keefe and the Mosers have thought about, and that Edvard Moser has begun to explore scientifically:

In addition to their role in navigation, the specialized cells appear to be involved more generally in the formation of memories, particularly memories of events and experiences. In fact, O’Keefe and the Mosers, as well as other scientists, have begun to theorize that the “mental travel” of memory is governed by the same brain systems that enable us to get around in the world. In a 2013 article in Nature Neuroscience, Edvard Moser and his colleague György Buzsáki provided extensive experimental evidence that “the neuronal mechanisms that evolved to define the spatial relationship among landmarks can also serve to embody associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” Out of such associations we weave the memories of our lives. It may well be that the brain’s navigational sense — its ancient, intricate way of plotting and recording movement through space — is the evolutionary font of all memory.

That would certainly help explain why early memory loss in dementia often manifests itself in a loss of navigational sense.

It was revealing that, when journalists reported on the Nobel last week, they often summed up the scientists’ breakthroughs as involving the discovery of “the brain’s GPS” or our “inner GPS.” That’s a great example of how we often draw on recent technologies as metaphors for the workings of our bodies and minds. Of course, our brains are not receiving signals from satellites (at least not yet); they’re receiving a rich mix of sensory signals about the physical world. The danger in the metaphor is that, in implying a fundamental similarity between an external navigation system and an internal one, it also suggests that which system we use doesn’t matter. Either will get you where you want to go. Lost in the metaphor is the elemental quality of our navigational skill — its importance in connecting us to the world, in giving us a sense of place, and its possible importance to the healthy working of memory. One thing the work of O’Keefe and the Mosers tells us is that the ability to answer the question “Where am I?” through one’s own resources may not be as dispensable a skill as we assume.


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The Glass Cage, inscribed

Psst. Barnes & Noble has some signed copies of my new book for sale. Here.

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The one who searches and destroys


I skimmed Will Self’s essay “The Fate of Our Literary Culture Is Sealed.” Here’s what I picked up:

tossed from wave to wave of language as we relapse into the wordsea

no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we

or the street map of Dublin

the reader strives to see in them, see through them, and to discern the connections between them

what it might be like to not have to read deeply at all

finding in digital reading new forms of stimulus and

valorisation of the printed word – its fusty scent, its silk, its heft – is a rearguard action

words and revenue

not only did the reviews in the quality press mean something

one big, thick pipeline carrying half the revenue from British retail book sales disappears deep into Jeff

exactly the same iron laws of supply and demand

church was a repository of scholarship for its own sake

academics publishing online in order to secure professional advancement,

“I just want to be misunderstood”

and use digital media to develop new forms of understanding

effectively, a monetised intellectual prosthesis

were this resource to be truly incapable of being owned, then yes, the tweeting Arab Spring might have culminated in a warm

a global field

none of this, however,

no going back

no point



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Uncaged, in Seattle and San Francisco


Fulfilling its Manifest Destiny, the Uncaged Tour has arrived at the western edge of the continent. I will be speaking about The Glass Cage at Town Hall Seattle tonight at 7:30 (details). And then, on Wednesday at 6:30 pm, I’ll be at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco for a conversation with Salon’s Andrew Leonard (details). If you’re around, please swing by.

And here are a few choice quotes from recent Glass Cage reviews:

Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe:

[Carr] suggests that automated systems should require humans to participate in vital activities. An aircraft autopilot might require the pilot to manually change the plane’s course, altitude, and speed; a medical diagnostic program might run regular quizzes to teach radiologists to spot unusual cancers. And once self-driving vehicles arrive, we might require their human owners to take the wheel every now and then.

Of course, this kind of automation with a human face would be more costly and timeconsuming, making it less likely that businesses will race to embrace it. More likely, we’ll have to tolerate a world of ever smarter machines, operated by ever less capable humans. Not a cheerful prospect, but we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Michelle Scheraga, Associated Press:

Without resorting to scare tactics or sermonizing on the dangers of overautomation, [Carr’s] book details in careful, measured ways both the promise of mechanization and its drawbacks since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, drawing connections between the blue-collar worker operating factory equipment and the white-collar worker inputting data in a computer, both using machines meant to shoulder most of the heavy physical or mental labor.

His historical, inclusive approach makes an issue most of those already deeply steeped in technology won’t find at all surprising — that what we’re losing might outweigh what we gain by relying on computers — a stimulating, absorbing read.

Elisabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire:

In his new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Carr provides an elegantly written history of what role robotics have played in our past, and the possible role that they may play in our future. In a world where there’s a lot of technology cheerleaders, Carr is one of our most valuable skeptics. […]

Carr shows how maps and our concept of them, have changed with the GPS. Where once we had to read an area, to see where we were in relation to the world, to figure it out with our heads, GPS satellite technology has made the world shrink to our perceptions of it. These technologically adept maps start with where we are and tell us, simply, how to get to the next place. It reduces our cognitive abilities with its ease. “The more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation,” he writes. Carr pulls off this incredible synthesis, over and over, starting with something like maps and what technology’s done with them, bringing history, literature, culture, economics, and science, all together to reveal a window into who we are and what we’re becoming.

James Janega, Chicago Tribune:

The Glass Cage is a worthy antidote to the relentlessly hopeful futurism of Google, TED Talks and Walt Disney, and just as statistically probable as a world in which devoted digital assistants will book our anniversary dinners, route us around traffic jams, and send the perfect Mother’s Day floral arrangement on our behalf.

Jacob Axelrad, Christian Science Monitor:

Will smart phones, tablets, and applications imprison us in a “frictionless world”? Do devices and programs dull our senses? Are we – as tech critics sometimes suggest – outsourcing our brains?

These questions are posed by Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a thoughtful extension of some of the questions raised in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The Glass Cage is smart, insightful, and at times funny, as it takes readers through a series of anecdotes, academic research, and current and historical events to paint a portrait of a world readily handing itself over to intelligent devices.

Mark Bauerlein, The Weekly Standard:

There is a long tradition of automation zeal, and Carr provides revealing examples, including Oscar Wilde’s prediction that “while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure .  .  . or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.”

Nicholas Carr’s warnings run against that pleasing vision, which puts him in a minority of culture-watchers. […] The future he paints is a dicey one: We may soon reach a point at which automation—in hazardous settings from cockpits to battle zones—allows mistakes to happen less frequently but more catastrophically, because humans are unprepared to resume control. The technophile’s solution is to augment the automation, thereby decreasing the very toil that keeps humans sharp. Better to think more about the human subject, Carr advises.

And, finally, here’s a report on the hair-raising joyride I took through the streets of D.C. with NPR’s Robert Siegel during last week’s East Coast segment of the Uncaged Tour.


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