What is topographic cretinism?

It may seem surprising, but not everyone is well oriented in space. Some people have serious difficulty moving in the indicated direction even when the map of the area is right in front of their eyes. This disorder is also characterized by the inability to remember routes and is popularly referred to as topographic cretinism. This term, of course, is not medical and refers to the category of cognitive disorders associated with spatial orientation, which involves the ability to perceive, interpret and remember spatial relationships between objects in the environment. Researchers note that impairments in this area can be caused by a variety of factors, including thinking errors, neuropsychological characteristics, genetic predispositions and environmental conditions.

What is topographic cretinism? Some people have poor spatial orientation. But why does this happen? Photo.

Some people have poor spatial orientation. But why does this happen?

Topographic cretinism– a thinking error that can lead to a distorted perception in space of both oneself and the surrounding world.


  • 1 Skills navigation
  • 2 Genetics and physiology
  • 3 Environment
  • 4 Anxiety and stress
  • 5 Diagnosis and treatment

Navigation skills

While it is easy to show that people differ in their navigation abilities, explaining exactly why has been much more difficult. Fortunately, there is a new surge of interest in topographical cretinism in the world of navigation research – with the help of technologies such as GPS navigators and virtual reality, scientists can observe hundreds, sometimes millions of people trying to find their way in complex and confusing terrain.

Interestingly, previous research suggests that navigation skills can be shaped by a variety of factors. Thus, researchers in the field of neuropsychology believe that difficulties with spatial orientation may be associated with dysfunction of certain areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

Navigation skills. The hippocampus is a paired structure located in the temporal regions of the hemispheres. The hippocampus performs the function of short-term memory and is responsible for the subsequent translation of information into long-term memory. Image: cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net. Photo.

The hippocampus is a paired structure located in the temporal regions of the hemispheres. The hippocampus performs the function of short-term memory and is responsible for the subsequent translation of information into long-term memory. Image: cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net

Recall that the hippocampusplays a key role in the formation and storage of spatial memories, and damage to this area of ​​the brain can lead to serious problems with spatial orientation.

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The prefrontal cortex, in turn, is responsible for higher cognitive functions, including planning and decision making. It is also involved in the processing of spatial information and its integration with other cognitive processes. Impairments in this area, however, can also lead to difficulty planning routes and finding your way around new places.

Genetics and Physiology

There is an opinion that the tendency to topographic cretinism may be partly determined genetically. Thus, the results of some scientific studies indicate the presence of genetic factors that affect the ability to spatial orientation. In particular, polymorphisms in genes associated with the functioning of neural connections can affect the efficiency of processing spatial information.

Genetics and physiology. Topographic cretinism often causes feelings of disorientation and stress. Image: smartcdn.gprod.postmedia.digital. Photo.

Topographic cretinism often causes feelings of disorientation and stress. Image: smartcdn.gprod.postmedia.digital

Physiological characteristics such as the level of activity of neurotransmitters (neurotransmitters – chemical substances in the brain), which may play a role in the development of topographic cretinism, are also important. For example, a lack of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, important for memory and learning, can impair spatial orientation abilities.

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The importance of the human environment is highlighted by recent research into the role of genetics in navigation. In 2020, Margherita Malancini, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, and her colleagues compared the performance of more than 2,600 identical and non-identical twins as they navigated virtual environments to test whether navigation abilities were inherited. They found that this was true, but only to a modest extent.

Instead, the greatest contribution to people's performance came from what geneticists call the “unshared environment,” that is, the unique experiences that each person accumulates as he develops. . It turns out that good navigators mostly become, and are not born.

Environment. Some people cannot plan routes and have poor sense of direction. Image: i.dailymail.co.uk. Photo.

Some people cannot plan routes and have poor orientation. Image: i.dailymail.co.uk

A remarkable large-scale experiment conducted by Hugo Spears, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, gave scientists a glimpse into how experience and other cultural factors can influence wayfinding skills.

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Spears and his colleagues, in collaboration with telecommunications company T-Mobile, developed Sea Hero Quest, a mobile phone and tablet game in which players navigated a boat through a virtual environment to find a number of control points. About 4 million people took part in the game.

The results of the study showed that several cultural factors are associated with spatial orientation skills. Residents of Nordic countries tend to have slightly better terrain awareness, perhaps because orienteering, which combines cross-country running and navigation, is popular in these countries, the authors of the study note.

Environment. Some people's brains cannot make mental maps. Image: scx2.b-cdn.net. Photo.

Some people's brains cannot make mental maps. Image: scx2.b-cdn.net

Residents of rural areas performed better on average than residents of cities, and people living in cities with more chaotic street patterns, such as the older neighborhoods of European cities, performed better than residents of cities such as Chicago with simpler navigation devices. Findings like these suggest that a person's life experiences may be one of the most important factors in determining how well they navigate in space.

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When talking about environmental factors that influence the inability of some people to navigate in space, one cannot fail to mention ecology. This is because people who grow up in complex urban environments with intricate infrastructure may develop better navigation skills than those who live in more orderly or rural areas. Experience is also important: regular use of maps, navigation systems and participation in activities that require spatial awareness can improve these skills.

Anxiety and stress

Psychological aspects such as anxiety levels and stress tolerance may also influence spatial orientation. High levels of anxiety can reduce the ability to concentrate and impair cognitive functions, including spatial memory. Research shows that people with high levels of anxiety are more likely to have difficulty finding their way around.

Topographic cretinism can have a significant impact on daily life and social interactions. People suffering from this disorder may experience difficulties in professional activities that require frequent movement and orientation in a new area, experts note.

Anxiety and stress. Topographic cretinism can cause many problems. Image: autistictic.com. Photo.

Topographic cretinism can cause many problems. Image: autistictic.com

The results of numerous studies support the existence of topographic cretinism as a separate cognitive disorder. Fortunately, with the development of technologies such as GPS and navigation systems, the impact of topographic cretinism can be partially compensated, making life much easier for people with this disorder.

Topographic cretinism should not be confused with disorientation – a psychoneurological disorder characterized by an inability to navigate in space and time, a disturbance in the perception of one’s personality and others.

Diagnosis and treatment

Diagnosis of topographic cretinism is carried out by assessing cognitive functions and spatial orientation abilities and includes tests of memory, attention and visual-spatial perception. One assessment method is the use of virtual reality to create simulated real-life situations and test the subject's ability to navigate them, as mentioned above.

Diagnostics and treatment. By the way, absolutely anyone can become disoriented in space and get lost in three pines. Image: cdn.theatlantic.com. Photo.

By the way, absolutely anyone can become disoriented in space and get lost in three pines. Image: cdn.theatlantic.com

Correction of topographic cretinism may involve various approaches aimed at improving cognitive function and orientation skills. Here are some of them: Cognitive training: exercises aimed at improving memory and spatial perception. These can be specialized programs or games that require memorizing routes and navigating in virtual spaces. In some cases, medications that improve cognitive function, as well as psychotherapy, may be used.

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In short, topographic cretinism is a complex and multifaceted disorder associated with cognitive, genetic, psychological and environmental factors. Understanding the causes and mechanisms of this disorder, as well as the development of effective methods of correction and treatment, can significantly improve the quality of life of people suffering from topographic cretinism.