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Psychology of Sleep (Part 2) – How mental maps affect sleeping in Singapore

So, we know that we each have a map in our heads and that it’s set North/South, but throughout history maps were generally orientated East/West: the Chinese put the Middle Kingdom in the middle, Europeans put Jerusalem at the centre. The orientation was based on the circuit of the Sun, the most obvious and fixed reference for direction and time (just think about the word ‘orientation’; it comes from the Latin for East = Orient).  The invention of the navigational compass changed all that and maps are now orientated North/South in line with the Earth’s magnetic field and this has meant that our maps are now more in tune with nature than before.  There have been many studies on migratory birds and homing pigeons to understand how they navigate over huge distances and we now know that they travel these spectacular journeys using internal compasses.  Although we don’t understand exactly how the birds use their compasses we know that the main component is actually a physical compass – homing pigeons’ skulls are thicker at the front and have a high concentration of iron in the bone, a feature that is not found in other bones or the rest of the skull or in non-migratory birds.  As iron is magnetically sensitive it would appear that migratory and homing birds have a skull built into their heads.

Humans also have a slight thickening of the skull at the front and that part of our heads has more iron in the bone than any other part of our bodies, so it looks like we also have an internal compass.  This may explain the results of the Tubingen experiment: participants were better at pointing to locations when facing North or South.  This suggests that they used an ‘inner’ compass  when pointing to locations and that they did best when they aligned the virtual map with their internal map along the North/South axis.   Wow, this means that humans have their own SatNav!

The psychological research suggests that humans have an internal map and we may also have a compass built into our skulls.  You may still be asking: what does this have to do with not being able to sleep ?  On the TMC Psychology course in Singapore we tackle these questions and lots more, so you can find some answers by joining our diploma in Psychology classes or the degree in Psychology course.  In the next post we’ll look at how your inner compass might affect your sleep patterns.

Dr. Hew Gill Ex-Head of Psychology Programmes TMC Academy

Reference: Frankenstein, J., Mohler, B. J. , Bülthoff,  H. H. and Meilinger, T. (2011) Is the Map in Our Head Oriented North ?Psychological Science , 23( 2) 120-125.


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