Most of us know our way around the town or city or suburb where we live. We drive down the same streets, go to the same grocery store, pass the same billboards day after day. An area that was once overwhelming and unfamiliar quickly becomes manageable—we find ourselves able to navigate a new area through repetition, memory, and the ability to create recognizable landmarks. We don’t often question or appreciate this simply because, well, it’s just so natural. Taking the same old route to work everyday becomes mundane and predictable. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if every time you put the keys into the ignition you were scared to death you’d get lost? Places you’ve been to hundreds of times before can seem like new and uncharted territory. This life, this perpetual state of Where am I? is a reality for individuals who have what’s called Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD), and it’s explored spectacularly through Radiolab’s ‘Lost and Found’ episode. What exactly is DTD? It’s caused by an underdeveloped hippocampus, an area of the brain crucial to spatial orientation and the creation of cognitive maps. Unlike people who have difficulty figuring out their surroundings due to an external source like a head injury, those with DTD are born with an inability to cognitively map their surroundings.
The Radiolab episode chronicles the life of Sharon Roseman, a woman who lived the first 30 years of her life scared and confused by her constant disorientation, unsure of what exactly was ‘wrong’ with her. What makes us at GLIMPSE especially interested in this story is the man who diagnosed Roseman with DTD, Dr. Giuseppe Iaria. Iaria is an Assistant Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Calgary and was interviewed for our upcoming Cartography issue. In the interview he speaks about the science behind our cognitive maps (or lack thereof for some)—how we put them together, how we use them, and why the little machine with the soothing voice telling us ‘in .5 miles, turn right’ might be more detrimental to our internal mapping system than we’d like to believe.
If you found yourself interested in the work of Dr. Iaria, be sure to check out our forthcoming Cartography issue.
– Allison Nonko