When My Brain Says Right, I Go Left

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I discovered something about myself recently that I never realized. Although I have a good sense of direction, there’s seems to be a little quirk in my internal compass. It appears that my left-right orientation has somehow become skewed by 180 degrees. That means, when my brain tells me to turn right, I should turn left if I want to get where I mean to go.

This may seem like a small thing, but, when I think about it, this tiny glitch actually has caused me many problems over the years. Like when I was in tenth grade in a new town.  I remember I left school for home and walked five miles in the wrong direction before I discovered my mistake. Like as an adult, when I was an event coordinator picking up the guest speaker at the airport and leading him in the opposite direction from the baggage claim. Very embarrassing.

We are born with an innate sense of direction that allows us to navigate through unfamiliar places without trepidation, that orients us and centers us and, like the birds and whales, and any number of migrating animals, homes us in on our place of safety and comfort. And this happens through a mechanism called magnetoreception, an ability of organisms – human and non-human – to pick up on the Earth’s magnetic field in order to sense direction, altitude and location.

In recent years, researchers have demonstrated that humans do have the power of magnetoreception. In one experiment the subjects’ brainwaves were measured on EEGs. The subjects were were tested inside a Faraday cage, a metal box that virtually eliminated the possibility of radio waves or other noise to interfere with the magnetic field that was applied, a field designed to imitate the magnetism of the Earth.

In addition to confirming the magnetoreceptive character of the human internal compass, researchers have also identified the area of the brain associated with the sense of direction. Through MRI scanning of the subjects in the experiment during a test of navigation, the part of the brain, the entorhinal region, was consistently activated during the test. The stronger the signal in that region, the better the subjects were able to navigate through the test.

As far as the problem with my personal internal compass, I don’t know how that all happened. I do find it quite interesting, though, and possibly somewhere way back, around age 6 or 7, when I was becoming comfortable with the idea of left and right, something happened that tricked my brain into interpreting left-right direction in this odd way. Who knows?

I guess navigation problems can happen to any creature. Think of whales and dolphins. Even they go astray from time to time, beaching themselves, leaving themselves stranded on shore. Does that happen because of some malfunction of their internal compass? Who knows?