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Submitted by on Apr 30, 2021

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This is one of the most fundamental questions in neuroscience: How do people think? Until recently, it seemed to us that there was no single answer. However, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) in Leipzig, Germany and the Kavli Institute for Systemic Neurology in Trondheim, Norway, including Nobel laureate Edvard I. Moser, are making a new proposal in the current issue of the journal Science – people think using their brain’s navigation system.

When we navigate our environment, two important types of cells are active in our brain. Place the cells in the hippocampus and grid cells and the lattice in the adjacent entorhinal cortex forms a pattern that allows you to navigate.The team of scientists suggests that our internal navigation system does a lot more. They also suggest that this system is the key to “thinking,” explaining why our knowledge appears to be spatially organized.

“We believe that the brain stores information about the environment in so-called cognitive spaces. This applies not only to geographic data but also to the relationship between objects and experiences,” explains Christian Doeller, senior author of the article and new director of MPI CBS.


The term “cognitive spaces” refers to the mental maps in which we organize our experiences. Everything that we encounter has physical properties, be it human or object, and therefore can be located in different dimensions. “If I think about cars, I can order them based on engine power and weight, for instance. We will have race cars with powerful engines and low weight, as well as caravans with weak engines and high weight, and all combinations of them,” says Doeller. “We can think of our family and friends in the same way; for example, based on their height, humor or income, coding them as tall or short, humorous or without a sense of humor, or more or less rich. “Depending on the size of people’s interests, you can mentally keep people closer or further away from them.

In their proposal, Doeller and his team combine separate strands of evidence to form a theory of human thinking. The theory begins with Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of place and grid in rodent brains, which have been shown to exist in humans. Both types of cells show patterns of activity reflecting the position of the animal in space, for example, when feeding on food. Each position in space is represented by a unique model of activity. Together, the activity of sites and grid cells allows the formation of a mental map of the environment, which is preserved and activated on subsequent visits.

A very regular pattern of grid cell activation can also be observed in humans but this is important not only when navigating geographic areas.

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