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Review by Terence Jagger

I found this book absolutely fascinating. I have always been fairly confident in my abilities as a navigator (though with occasional disasters) but I have always assumed it was innate, like a sense of smell – you might have a better or worse one, but everyone has it at some level.  It turns out it’s much more complicated than that, and that it is significantly socially conditioned from early childhood onwards – and that all the help you get from your smartphone or in-car navigation system, even if it were perfect, is actually likely to be damaging your current abilities and even maybe nudging you a fraction nearer confusion and dementia in old age. And being able to find your way is not just a matter of getting home successfully, it also plays an important role in how you understand the world, and how you deal with its dangers and opportunities.

The concept of being lost is not simple.  A very young child doesn’t feel lost in space, it just knows it isn’t with mummy; and a lot of people say they are lost when they don’t know exactly where they are, but could retrace their steps or are confident that (for example) if they head south, they’ll find the river and then they’ll know where they are. Both of those are quite different from genuinely having no idea where you are or how to get home, to get safe, and so on – then blind, unreasoning panic can unman you.  I have only experienced this once, on a mountain in Scotland in a whiteout (zero visibility) and I was so anxious to get down that I plunged forward hopelessly.  But luckily I got a grip and retreated to my last known point – the summit cairn – and took ten minutes to calm down and re-engage the rational side of my brain. As Bond says

If you have ever wondered what it feels like to be lost, my advice is, don’t try it.  The experience is terrifying and often traumatizing. People who are truly lost are usually incapable of making the decisions that could save their lives, and they may even think they are going to die. They lose their minds as well as their bearings.

Bond begins with Ed Cornell, who studied wayfinding in Alberta; 30 years ago, the police asked him for help finding a lost child, and he realised he knew very little about how children navigate and travel. So he started finding out (incidentally, saving lives in future episodes) and discovered that children are explorers, but not methodical ones – they are easily distracted, they wandered, dawdled, and they went much further than anyone, including their parents, expected. This early exploration seems crucial for developing certain space awareness and navigational skills, and was part of every child’s life three generations ago, since when we have been restricting children’s roaming more and more. Fears of traffic, of assault and abduction, have led to each generation exploring less on its own – and more journeys taken by car. Children asked to draw maps of their route to school show much more detail if they walk (more awareness, more stimulation, more checkpoints for future journeys) than those who are driven. But children may fear being lost (or wish for it?) but they are driven to explore. And when they get a phone, they can use satnav or a map app, and never learn to navigate at all. 

Bond spends some time explaining how the brain knows where you are, although there is no one place a “map” is stored. There are special cells for knowing your head direction, and others which mark boundaries – we like boundaries a lot in navigating – and there are place cells. How all these make a map we can use is unknown, because they are in different places, and if they are wiped out (as has been done with laboratory rats), the new map of the same place is recorded quite differently from its predecessor.  And the same processes that record and remember seem to help plan journeys, a crucial skill in the wild. All this activity and cerebral stimulation is not needed if you follow GPS, so “when you follow that blue dot on our screens you are not doing much at all”. 

On the other hand, these maps in the brain (they’re not maps, but it is simpler to call them that) can be context specific in quite striking ways. So as well as using boundaries, they note doorways, both literal and imagined.

Walking through doorways … can be catastrophic for short-term or working memories, hastening their departure from the front of your mind.  Those times when you’ve arrived in the kitchen wondering what you’ve come to fetch are the ‘doorway effect’ in action. … crossing a boundary clears the cache of our working memory and transfers the contents to long term memory. … the past is best remembered chapter by chapter.

A similar effect is at work when you know two parts of a city but are surprised, when walking, that they touch just here.

One of the concepts this book introduced me to was path integration, the ability at the end of a complex journey with many twists and turns, to know the direction which will take you straight back to the starting point – something some animals do in featureless conditions, like ants in a desert, purely on the basis of their sense of their own motion – inner ear, optics, awareness of time, and muscle feedback. This is the ultimate egocentric strategy and would, over any sustained time or distance be well beyond almost all humans, who in thse conditions perform at levels barely distinguishable from chance. However, in practice, we can augment this with environmental cues – landmarks, the direction of the sun or wind, and so on. I have been doing my daily walk at dawn during the lockdown and have been deliberately doing without maps, even in areas I do not recall ever having visited before, and I am pleased to say that not only is my path integration seemingly OK, but I think it, and my basic spatial awareness, is improving as a result of relying only on myself and environmental cues!  Using GPS regularly, apart from depriving you of the joy of looking where you are going and seeing the multifarious and stimulating world we inhabit, is the best way of killing your navigational abilities – or if you start young, of stopping them ever developing.

Cities and offices are particularly hard spaces for the navigator:

Disorientation can happen anywhere, but it is more likely in places with few stand out landmarks, such as inside large buildings with restricted window views and limited sightlines.  Hospitals are notoriously bad … Wayfinding in such places is hard enough for the healthy, let alone those whose cognition may be befuddled by illness or old age.   Cities are full of orientation challenges. To experience a near-instantaneous blitzing of your head direction system, try walking down one of the deep spiral staircases that connects London’s underground stations with the platforms  … within a few turns, the featureless, rotational descent will have scrambled any sense of direction you had at ground level.

Women and men do seem to employ different strategies for navigating – women paying greater attention to landmarks, and think of space in relation to themselves – and men refer more to non-local reference points such as the sun, compass points,  or to imagine a map view – though plenty of men and women use both strategies.  Traditional tests that show women as worse navigators tend to test the skills which men are more comfortable with, but in cities (lots of landmarks) or forests (no view of district boundaries), these differences disappear.

The book looks at the tragic case of Gerry Largay, a 66 year old woman who left the Appalachian trail in Maine one day in 2013, just to relieve herself – and died 19 days later, unable to find the trail, which she was probably 25 yards from when she went wrong … her body was found 27 months later, she was half a mile from the trail, close to an old railroad, and a search team passed within 100 yards.  It’s deep, dense, tangled wildwood, and she lost all reliable sensory information – and her phone had no reception.  This is a kind of case study for the book’s theme of being physically lost – but Michael Bond also covers being psychologically lost, asking for example, “am I here?”, and how different people behave when they get lost – children wander erratically, distracted by every this and that, men with dementia tend to go on in a straight line until they can’t go any further, and despondents find a place they like – maybe that they already knew – and wait until something happens, often something dreadful.

Overall, a fascinating, well written, and thought provoking book.  If you have every wondered what’s down that lane or over that hill, or ever been a little bit lost, or just interested in how your brain works out where you are, you will find this a lively and enjoyable read.

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Michael Bond, Wayfinding – The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way, (Picador, 2020). 978-1509841066, 225pp, hardback.

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  1. Thank you for this interesting review.

  2. I’ve been interested in this book just based on the title, but I hadn’t expected it to explore this concept so widely. Your review has made me much more interested in reading it 🙂

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