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Science Nation: BPS (Brain Positioning System)

3 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A car drives through city streets at night in fast-motion.

(male narrator) Imagine if getting lost became a thing of the past. Even finding lost keys would no longer feel like a lost cause.

(Describer) Amy Shelton:

What we're trying to study is, your day-to-day environments, how do you learn them.

(narrator) With support from the National Science Foundation, cognitive psychologist Amy Shelton explores our brain's navigation system.

(Describer) She discusses images of a brain on a monitor.

Let's make sure we get this cleanly and get good coverage of the hippocampus.

(narrator) Scott Clark is having his head examined.

(Describer) Wearing a visor, he slides into a machine.

In this demonstration, Shelton uses an MRI to analyze his brain's blood flow, as he learns his way through a virtual world.

(Shelton) He's watching an observer moving around,

(Describer) ...in a maze.

and as the observer moves, you see items like a shopping cart or a tree. The job is to learn where those items are located.

(narrator) Later, Scott takes a retrieval test. That reveals hard evidence about how he learns the surrounding world. Does he make a map in his head, a so-called place learner, or follow the same route he watched repeatedly, like a creature of habit, a response learner? We see if they're taking shortcuts or sticking to their familiar path. This tends to be diagnostic.

(Shelton) If he's taking detours, he's probably a place learner. If he uses the familiar path, then he's a response learner, because he's sticking to actions that will get him to the same place repeatedly.

(narrator) Shelton easily distinguishes the two learning types by analyzing the MRI images.

(Shelton) This region in the hippocampus is more active, or pronounced, for people who are place learners,

(Describer) She refers to small regions on two MRIs.

people who take detours, using space more flexibly. Whereas the caudate is active for people who are creatures of habit, using the familiar routes repeatedly.

(narrator) Shelton says this research could help develop better memory techniques.

(Shelton) By understanding different learning mechanisms, particularly the advantages and disadvantages each type of learning conveys, we can start to do things like tailor people's GPS systems to play to their advantages.

(narrator) That could mean getting lost could get a whole lot harder.

(Describer) The globe turns.

For Science Nation, I'm Miles O'Brien.

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What happens in your brain when you get lost or forget something? Johns Hopkins University Neuroscientist Amy Shelton believes she can find the answer. With funding from the National Science Foundation, she’s testing human spatial recognition. Study subjects learn and recall their way around a virtual maze while an MRI scans their brains. By analyzing MRI images of blood flow in the human, Shelton can get a picture of how the brain learns and recalls the spatial world outside the body. By understanding those processes, she believes she can develop techniques that will help improve human memory.

Media Details

Runtime: 3 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 2
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 3
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 4
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 5
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 6
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 7
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 8
4 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 9
4 minutes
Grade Level: 7 - 12
Science Nation
Episode 10
4 minutes
Grade Level: 10 - 12