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

The smell of your neighborhood pizzeria and the feel of a cracked sidewalk may be more important than researchers previously believed.
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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," says Mayank Mehta, a neurophysicist at UCLA. "And it doesn't care for any other place in the world."