Picture this: You’re walking around a grocery store you’ve shopped in a hundred times before, when all of a sudden you feel disoriented. You could’ve sworn the seafood section was in the back-right corner of the store, and you can’t remember where the pastries are at all. If this has ever happened to you, you might have wondered if it was just run-of-the-mill forgetfulness, or a sign of a larger issue. Good news: It may be nothing to worry about! According to a recent study, a sudden lapse like this could be due to a relatively normal brain response.
Scientists at the University of Arizona recently published a study in Nature Communications looking at why we tend to get lost in environments we should be familiar with. For example, most of us go to the grocery store relatively often. (Hey, we’ve all got to eat!) If you typically use one grocery store, then go to a different location of the same supermarket chain, you may notice your brain getting jumbled, despite the two buildings having similar layouts. This is thanks to a concept called “repulsion,” where the more similar two separate environments are, the more differently our brains treat them, creating that confusion. (Counterintuitive, right?)
To test this, researchers set up a complex study in which 27 participants were taken through three similar virtual “cities,” each of which had a different array of seven stores in it. Some stores were available in more than one “city,” while others were only found in a single place. After getting a sense of each city, subjects answered questions about their layouts and underwent an MRI to measure brain activity.
A Challenge for Your Brain
Interestingly, when participants were asked about different cities with similar stores and layouts, their brain activity changed, as if it was struggling to process how familiar these situations were. “That’s the challenge for the brain: A lot of stuff in our daily life is similar, so there’s no reason to use our limited resources to relearn very similar experiences,” explained study co-author Arne Ekstrom, MS, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona “But at the same time, there are things in our everyday life that we have to treat as different in order to be able to learn.” Eventually, our brains adjust to the new stimuli and figure out where to go.
While it doesn’t seem like the worst problem to have, scientists are actually using this phenomenon of repulsion to help them better understand why conditions like Alzheimer’s and strokes cause memory loss and problems with spatial awareness in patients as time goes on. “The implications here would be maybe this neural repulsion mechanism is something that could be impaired with aging,” Ekstrom noted. “If you understand the mechanisms whereby healthy, young brains work, maybe you can better understand some of the things that go wrong with neural disease and aging.”
While there’s not necessarily a “cure” for that sudden forgetfulness in a new-yet-familiar place, it’s a relief to know there’s probably not a larger problem at stake. That said, if forgetfulness is becoming an increasingly bigger issue for you, it may be something to bring up with your doctor!