Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Central to the concept of the “cognitive map” is that it confers behavioral flexibility, allowing animals to take efficient detours, exploit shortcuts, and avoid alluring, but unhelpful, paths. The neural underpinnings of such naturalistic and flexible behavior remain unclear. In two neuroimaging experiments, we tested human participants on their ability to navigate to a set of goal locations in a virtual desert island riven by lava, which occasionally spread to block selected paths (necessitating detours) or receded to open new paths (affording real shortcuts or false shortcuts to be avoided). Detours activated a network of frontal regions compared with shortcuts. Activity in the right dorsolateral PFC specifically increased when participants encountered tempting false shortcuts that led along suboptimal paths that needed to be differentiated from real shortcuts. We also report modulation in event-related fields and theta power in these situations, providing insight to the temporal evolution of response to encountering detours and shortcuts. These results help inform current models as to how the brain supports navigation and planning in dynamic environments.