Scientists at University College London studied a group of newborn rats before they had a chance to explore their environment and found they already had a developed sense of their surroundings.
The team at the university's Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience discovered that the brain's representations of a sense of place and direction appeared extremely early in the animal's development – within just two weeks of being born – and were seemingly independently of any experience of the world.
Dr Francesca Cacucci, an expert in spatial cognition and lead author of the study, said the findings helped shed light on a mystery that has perplexed generations of her peers.
Dr Cacucci, said: "The question of how we acquire knowledge of the outside world and form our sense of place has challenged scientists and philosophers for centuries.
"This work clarifies the processes involved for the first time, and shows that the concept of space is something that develops very early – most likely within the first two weeks of being born – and is unlikely to have been learnt."
Peter Spinney, Scottish spokesman for the Association of British Drivers, said he was not surprised by the theory that people may simply be born with a sense of direction.
He said: "I think I have an innate sense of direction. Just knowing where north is when you are out on the road means you are half-way there to your destination.
"But it is not something that can be learned very easily, and I do not think most motorists have a sense of direction. That is something I would blame on sat-navs, which have been selling like hotcakes over the past couple of years.
"The information they provide is not reliable and the danger is that people concentrate on the screen rather than the road in front of them."
The UCL report is just the latest study of spatial cognition. Two years ago, a team from Queen Mary, University of London, identified differences in spatial reasoning related to gender and sexual orientation.
The report found that homosexual men and heterosexual women share a poor sense of direction compared with heterosexual men, and are more likely to rely on landmarks.
The UCL study, published in the journal Science monitored the activation – or "firing" – of three different types of spatial neurons in the brains of rats in an area of the brain called the hippocampus. In humans, this area plays a crucial role in long-term memory for events and spatial navigation. The study found that the directional signal – which lets the animal know which way it is facing – is already at adult levels as soon as it can be measured in newborn rats.
Professor John O'Keefe, a co-author, of the study, added: "Given that we have found that some aspects of the spatial representation come into play so early, within two weeks of birth, we think that space could be a sense that is developed independently of any experience."