Ch 53. Neuroscience of Navigation

Meredith E. Minearand Tesalee K. Sensibaugh


For many biological organisms, the ability to successfully navigate their environment is essential for survival, playing a key role in fundamental behaviors such as foraging, mating, and the avoidance of predators. In addition, multiple species of insects, mammals, birds, and fish are capable of spectacular feats of navigation involving hundreds or even thousands of kilometers. Even under laboratory conditions, learning the most mundane of mazes requires complex neural computation to integrate and coordinate information from multiple brain areas. The last 40 years have seen an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the neural mechanisms involved in navigation from the identification of specialized spatial processing cells representing an animal’s position in space to the complex interactions among multiple brain areas that enable goal‐directed navigation.

This chapter provides a broad overview of the major findings in the neuroscience of navigation to date. Primarily we focus on two issues:

(i) How specialized spatial cells located throughout the brain represent an organism’s location in and movement through an environment and

(ii) the roles of different brain areas and neural networks involved in accomplishing navigational tasks.

We conclude with a discussion of the limitations of the work conducted to date and the challenges for the field in understanding how the brain accomplishes large‐scale navigation in natural environments.