Place cells, wayfinding and the Nobel Prize

John O'Keefe's place cell research and the creation of Legible London

How apt that rats were doing the leg work which allowed the brilliant brain of John O’Keefe to win the Nobel Prize in October.

O’Keefe’s discovery of ‘place cells’ in rats’ brains, building maps of the laboratory labyrinths they navigated, prompted much casting around for potential applications of the natural GPS in our own hippocampus.

One answer (for O’Keefe’s work has many varied and wonderful possible uses) is already right in front of the eyes of millions on the streets of London every day.

The rats, not running in rings, but in fact running within a subconscious mapping exercise of information gathering and storage, have, perhaps unfairly, an unfortunate place in the terminology of the city. The phrases rat run and rat race are both denigrations of the urban experience.

But the humble rat, thanks to University College London’s O’Keefe, enabled a breakthrough in how people move around the city. And standing in the streets and on the corners of London is the application.

It is the wayfinding breakthrough that is Legible London. We used O’Keefe’s research in 2005 to help us design the Legible London system of wayfinding which has become the standard to aspire to for cities around the world.

Legible London on-street monolith. ©Philip Vile

We wanted to know what, as we navigate, was happening between our ears, behind our eyes, and a few foot above our feet planted on the pavements and streets of a city.

We turned to science, scouring 20 academic papers to gain insights and a better understanding of how the brain works. Among the papers we read was John O’Keefe’s. His research stood out.

Legible London’s lead designer, Tim Fendley. ©Applied Wayfinding

It has been described this week as GPS for the brain – actually what GPS offers in precision it lacks in context and a deficit of intelligence.

Applying this research led us to the insight that our objective for Legible London – and subsequent wayfinding in other cities – should be to help people build a better mental map, not just know where they are now. The objective is to teach people the city, make it easy for their place cells to remember it.

Directional signage doesn’t build the mental map. Just a route. Finger pointers are fine if they point where you want to go. But if your destination is not part of the system it won’t help at all.

Legible London finder map. ©Applied Wayfinding

Legible London teaches, it doesn’t simply point. It shows how the city is laid out, where the connections and overlaps occur – and your place within that.

It’s seeing the joins, the juxtapositions, the proximities and the polarities. And in doing so it builds the number of place cells in your hippocampus.

These place cells have incredibly long term memory. Go back to your hometown, or the city where you went to college, and those cells will sing to you. You’ll know what’s around the corner, where the pub is and all the short cuts.

Harnessing place cells is at the heart of Legible London. We wanted its users to learn not just locate. Whether resident, worker, tourist – here for a day or a year or a decade – Legible London provides lifelong learning.

O’Keefe’s work – and our application of it – has informed all our wayfinding design ever since. For it to be acknowledged with a Nobel Prize is, for John, deserved and delightful, for us it was already gold medal standard.