Limbic lies – my brain tells me I can’t navigate. Unlearning giving up on ourselves.

My brain is very convincing in telling me I can’t navigate. It feels so real that I could have easily given up on my passion of living an outdoorsy adventurous life. In this blog I share why this happens and how having a basic aware of our evolutionary brain and how it works can help us stop giving up on ourselves.

My Mum tells a story of me as a little girl learning to play the recorder. I was small for my age my fingers wouldn’t stretch the bottom holes.  I cried in frustration and although Mum tried to soothe me and told me it just wasn’t possible for my fingers to reach, I kept trying.

I was a determined wee thing.

I wish I could say this was an ethic I carried into all areas of my life but in some areas I’ve given up on myself.

I can’t read maps

I’ve always given up on myself when it comes to navigation. I held a belief that I’ve a poor sense of direction. And various well intentioned friends have light heartedly confirmed this to me over the years.

In my mid 20s I worked as an Aid Worker and I lived in various villages and cities in Africa and Pakistan. I struggled with the geography of our various projects and relied heavily on my colleagues and our drivers to help me navigate.  Rather than working to improve my spatial awareness and spatial memory I instead put energy into hiding this shortcoming.


Three years ago I decided to stop making excuses. I wanted wild outdoor adventures on foot and bike. I couldn’t let my lack of navigational ability remain a barrier to my freedom.

It was time to stop making excuses. Time to learn new skills.


I want to navigate so I can have adventures like this (map of the Pacific Crest Trail in the U.S.).

I attended courses and learnt from colleagues in the Inverness Mountaineering Club.   I even did my Summer Mountain Leadership training. But the whole time I had a nagging voice in my head saying:

“You can’t navigate, who are you kidding?”.

I felt like there was something wrong with me, like I was innately stupid.

Recently on a winter skills course, whilst working on navigation, things started to fall into place and I was navigating well:

  • I orientated my map correctly,
  • took and walked on a bearing,
  • identified key features,
  • paced and arrived at the correct locations.

Then in just a few seconds everything changed.  Our instructor started talking about ‘aspect of slope’, which I didn’t understand.  I felt confused and went very quickly from calm to ‘shutting down”.  I noticed my negative self-talk and desire to quit.

wet wet wet

A photo taken of me on the navigation course.

From my counselling study I know that our brains are highly malleable. Neuro-plasticity research shows that we can create new thought pathways and learn new skills – but for some reason I don’t always live like this is true.

From study I know that our brains are highly malleable. Neuro plasticity research shows that we can create new pathways and learn new skills – but for some reason I don’t always live like this is true.

This blog is an exploration into why I/ we do this and how I/we can unlearn this urge to give up on ourselves.


What parts of our brain are involved in navigation?

The specialized region within our brain for navigating the spatial environment is the hippocampus. It helps us determine where we are, how we got there and how to navigate to the next destination.

Reading maps and developing navigational skills can affect the brain in beneficial ways. It’s thought that using orientation and navigational skills the hippocampus grows and the brain forms more neural pathways.

A study by scientists at University College in London found that grey matter in the brains of taxi drivers grew and adapted to help them store detailed mental maps of the city. MRI scans showed that the taxi drivers had larger hippocampi when compared to other people. The more time the drivers spent on the job, the more the hippocampus changes structurally to accommodate the large amount of navigational experience. Conversely a study at McGill University showed that using GPS excessively may lead to atrophy in the hippocampus as a person ages.

The study shows that experience with the spatial environment and navigation can have a direct influence on the brain itself.

Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 18.23.36

Gender and navigation

Research show’s gender differences in navigation that are more nuanced and interesting than ‘men are better at navigating than women’.  Thank goodness.

Men and women have small differences in spatial orientation and it’s thought there are biological differences in our brains as well as differences due to different learning experiences / socialisation.

A study from the Netherlands asked men and women to find their way back to their cars in a crowded parking lot. Men tended to use more mileage terms when describing the route while women mentioned landmarks more often.

A study which asked a group of men and women in a Mexican village to gather mushrooms found that the women expended less energy and seemed to know where to go. The women were also more likely to recall their routes using landmarks and retraced their paths to the most productive areas. In this study men were better at reading and using maps, women usually got to their destination quicker because they are better at remembering landmarks.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that men and women develop different methods of navigating and orienting themselves to the spatial environment because of differences in roles as hunters and gatherers.

Basically being a woman is not an excuse or reason for me to struggle with navigation so I’m letting go off that story!

Why do I freak out and tell myself that I can’t navigate?

I believe one of the reasons I give up on myself when it comes to navigation is that I have  an underlying belief that I ‘can’t do it’. I’ve created a strong neural pathway in my brain that tells me I can’t.

I’m a reasonably intelligent woman, educated to masters level. At an intellectual level I know the thought “I can’t do it” isn’t true.

But at a deeper level I believe and act like it is true. And I can find evidence from the recent past to back up this belief – like my struggling on my mountain leadership course.

It’s thought that we have about 70,000 thoughts per day;  70 to 80% of these are negative and about 95% of our thoughts are repetitive (I can’t find any research to back this up but let’s work with the ballpark figures).

Evolutionary biology has resulted in 5 things:

– We scan for bad news in the world, in the body, and in the mind.

– We over focus on it.

– We overreact to it.

– We turn it quickly into memory.

– We sensitise the brain to the negative.

The human brain is often called the triune brain because it’s broken up into three main parts:

The cortex is the thinking, aware part of the brain. It’s flexible in its ability to respond. It’s also the reflective part of the brain; it can self‐reflect. The prefrontal cortex is the wise part of the brain that can rationally assess what’s going on in a particular moment.

The limbic region is the older part of the brain. It’s more reactive. It’s the source of emotions. It acts quickly and can also act on autopilot to ensure our survival. The limbic part of the brain is where the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus are housed.

The brain stem is the oldest part – it controls our basic bodily functions.

Our limbic brains only cares about our basic need for survival being met. When I get cold or scared out doors it’s really easy to believe old repetitive thoughts from my limbic brains.  As we become more anxious, irritated, or frustrated, our attention tends to narrow.

So how do I move from this bind? How do I over ride the programming I’ve created in my brain?

View from Glen Coul Bothy

It’s so easy to believe the negative about our self but I never got lost on the Cape Wrath Trail. 

How to create a new pathway in my brain? 

To create new pathways in my brain to help me believe that I can learn to navigate well, I need to engage my pre frontal cortex.

Great Shona – but how the hell do you do that?

I’m doing it right now by writing this blog. When we think about our thinking – rather than being slave to our thoughts we are engaging our pre frontal cortex.

Daniel Seigel puts this more elequently than me:

“Inviting our thoughts and feelings into awareness allows us to learn from them rather than be driven by them.”

When we learn that our thoughts aren’t always true – and there are other ways of thinking that may be as true or truer – we begin to rewire.

My limbic brain may send me a message that I’m in danger that I can’t get out off; it can be quite black and white in it’s thinking. But my prefrontal cortex can challenge these thoughts.

“One of the key practical lessons of modern neuroscience is that the power to direct our attention has within it the power to shape our brain’s firing patterns, as well as the power to shape the architecture of the brain itself.” (Daniel Siegel).

Practicing mindfulness can support us in having a deeper connection with the prefrontal cortex, especially in those moments when the threat response system is engaged.

In part 2 of this blog, I explain more about how this works in practice.  We will look more into mindfulness, self compassion and science. And I’ve some juicy stories about losing my tent on night navigation last week.


I’d love to know what you think of this blog.

Do you have any questions? Does any of this resonate with you? Do you feel your limbic brain is holding you back at all? If you’d like one to one support with managing your thoughts and feelings find out more about working one to one with me here.

Please message me and let me know – I’d love to hear from you!

2 thoughts on “Limbic lies – my brain tells me I can’t navigate. Unlearning giving up on ourselves.

  1. Joan Munro says:

    I’ve loved reading this. First of all, I’m in awe of your plans to walk the PCT, your meticulous planning and determination.
    Your experience of navigation fascinates me. I’m a rotten navigator- done several mountain skill courses at Glenmore lodge over many years including a winter skills course. Spent hours and hours reading about it. Taken myself off into the hills on my own to make myself put theory into practice, had my family, all superb and enthusiastic map readers and navigators, patiently try to help while we are out……all to no avail. Unlike you, I haven’t had the light bulb moment! I no longer try.
    I am, however, trying hard to make changes to the way my body does things and am amazed that I am beginning to feel progress. So maybe I am creating new pathways……..and learning new skills!
    I look forward to your next newsletter. Jx

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Joan, thank you so much for making the time to comment and share. So great that you are creating new pathways indeed! x

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