How your brain maps the world (Discourse)

7.20pm to 8.45pm, Friday 29 March

The Theatre

The Royal Institution of Great Britain GB United Kingdom W1S 4BS 21 Albemarle Street London

This event has already taken place

  • Credit: Peter Gallivan


Free for Ri Members and Ri Patrons


Ri Young Members £7


Standard £20


Concession £15

Event description

To understand the ability to orient ourselves in space, UCL neuroscientist John O'Keefe studied the movements of rats and signals from nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area located in the centre of the brain. He found that cells in the brain formed a kind of internal map. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014. Join him to hear about his ground-breaking work, which could offer vital clues to understanding dementia.

About the speaker

John O'Keefe received a PhD in physiological psychology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1967, and then moved to England to do research at University College London. He stayed in London and in 1987 was appointed professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College. John is currently director of the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at University College.

John shared 50% of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for 'their discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain'. His research is into the awareness of one's location and how to find the way to other places is crucial for both humans and animals. To understand the ability to orient ourselves in space, John studied the movements of rats and signals from nerve cells in the hippocampus, an area located in the center of the brain. In 1971 he discovered that when a rat was at a certain location in a room, certain cells were activated, and that when the rat moved to another location, other cells became activated. That is to say, the cells form a kind of internal map of the room.

More about Discourses

Discourses are one of the Ri’s oldest and most prestigious series of talks. Since 1825, audiences in the theatre have witnessed countless mind-expanding moments, including the first public liquefaction of air by James Dewar, the announcement of the electron by J.J. Thomson and over 100 lectures by Michael Faraday. In more recent times, we have had Nobel laureates, Fields medal winners, scientists, authors and artists – all from the cutting-edge of their field. Discourses are an opportunity for the best and brightest to share their work with the world.

Steeped in nearly two centuries of tradition, a Discourse is more than just a lecture. To keep the focus on the topic, presenters begin sharply at 7:30pm without introduction and we lock the speaker into a room ten minutes ahead of the start (legend has it that a speaker once tried to escape!) We also ask guests to dress smartly to add to the sense of occasion.

Find out more about the history of the Friday Evening Discourses on our blog.


Discourses are free for Ri Members and Ri Patrons. Join us today and support us on our mission.

Food and Drink

The Atrium cafe will be open before and after the talk. Check out the delicious menu and call 020 7670 2973 or email to reserve your table.

There will also be a cash bar before the Discourse, where you can relax, meet likeminded people with an interest in science, and have a drink.

Dress code

The dress code for this event is smart (ties optional, no jeans or trainers). Please note, if you are not dressed smartly you may be asked to sit in the gallery.

Timing note

Please be aware that this Discourse starts at 7.30pm, but all attendees must be seated in the theatre by 7.20pm. 

The doors will open at approximately 6.45pm.


This event will be filmed and on the Ri's YouTube channel within a few months. Subscribe for free to hear when new videos are released.


The theatre is on the first floor and there is step-free access from the street via lift.

The closest underground station is Green Park, which is step-free.

There is space at floor level in the theatre for wheelchair users.

Seating is usually unreserved for our events. If you and your group require seating reservations, please do let us know by email and we’ll be more than happy to help. Email:

Carers can receive a free ticket to an event by emailing

Our theatre is equipped with an Audio Induction Loop.  

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