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Surprising Science

To Your Brain, the World Is 2D

The notion that we have a three-dimensional map inside our heads is an illusion, says a British neuroscientist. Instead, we locate our surroundings along horizontal and vertical planes.

What’s the Latest Development?

By studying the neurons inside rat brains, British neuroscientist Kathryn Jeffery has concluded that mammals most likely collapse the world into a two-dimensional map when navigating and calculating distances. Jeffrey’s team enticed rats to climb up a spiral staircase while collecting electrical recordings from single cells. “The firing pattern encoded very little in­formation about height. The finding adds evidence for the hypothesis that the brain keeps track of our location on a flat plane, which is defined by the way the body is oriented.”

What’s the Big Idea?

As humans and animals move over distances, two distinct types of neurons, divided into grid cells and space cells, switch on and off inside our brain, telling us how far we have come and how far we have left to go. The cells orient us on a flat plane, which is why astronauts report feeling disoriented when they stand on “ceilings”, even though that distinction does not exist in zero-gravity environments. Neuroscientists say a two-dimensional map is all we have needed to survive so our brain has not evolved beyond its basic spatial outlook.

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