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Navigational skills require nurturing, lest we lose our way

From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way

Michael Bond
Belknap Press
304 pp.
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The other day, I pulled into a gas station and swung around the pumps to reach my gas fill. After refueling, I turned back onto the road and drove some distance before realizing that I had turned the wrong way. Was I being inattentive, or do I just have a poor sense of direction? Or was this perhaps indicative of a larger problem? Have we replaced instinct with culture and, lacking local knowledge, had I lost my bearings? Or could it be that somewhere in my brain, there lurks a navigational capacity that has been dulled but could be revived? In his new book, From Here to There, Michael Bond guides readers through the neurological research and anecdotal tales that show how the brain supplies the equipment upon which our species has built its wayfinding skills.

Bond begins by accepting the fallacious characterization of contemporary hunter-gatherers as having “changed little” and thus being identical in their navigational habits to Paleolithic hominins. If, as he argues throughout the rest of the book, our ability to find our way is more learned than instinctual, his failure to attrib­ute any history or cultural distinctiveness to such peoples starts us in the wrong direction.

Back on the right path, Bond reviews the science of wayfinding with graceful accounts of current research. Neuroscientists have demonstrated that there are distinct cells in the brains of rats that are activated to establish place, to mark position, to orient with reference to boundaries, and to capture a heads-up direction. Humans, however, tend to align themselves not so much with cardinal markers as with landmarks, giving prominence, at times, to a mental map that is built upon one’s relation to particular sightings. Research has shown that the human brain’s entorhinal cortex appears to feed this information to the hippocampus, although the author acknowledges that how these cells interact with one another remains mysterious.

Wayfinding places a premium on memory, and Bond cites many examples of the different personal and cultural modes through which such recall is inscribed. From the Australian aborigines who can find their way through seemingly featureless terrain to the Inuit who cross trackless oceans of ice, research indicates that these abilities come not simply from an innate capacity to organize space but by way of the learned process of noting our surroundings and taking advantage of our cognitive equipment. As one researcher put it, the hippocampus helps us navigate life, not just space.

Bond is especially good at confronting stereotypes. Studies, he writes, do show that men are marginally better at spatial navigation than women, but with proper encouragement and opportunity the differences evaporate. Similarly, he challenges the idea that some people are simply better endowed with wayfinding abilities than others, arguing instead that even orienteering champions, Polynesian seafarers, and phenomenal navigators excel primarily through trained attentiveness and experience. Not surprisingly, Bond cites approvingly the wayfarer’s admonition that you should “trust your skills, not your instinct.”

But what happens when those skills are severely attenuated? Bond rues the fact that British children rarely explore away from home anymore, thus muffling the biological ability to find their way. So, too, do the 80,000 men kept in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons often lose their sense of direction. Meanwhile sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, who also lose spatial control, may, like Bond’s grandmother, express their confusion with the plaintive query “Am I here?” He describes the cases of lost individuals who make the mistake of racing to find a way out rather than staying put and awaiting rescue: As he notes, “no one gets smarter under stress.”

Bond writes in an easygoing, chatty style, free of jargon and strained analogies. He concludes that, by setting aside our GPS devices, by redesigning parts of our cities and play areas, and sometimes just by letting ourselves get lost, we can indeed revivify our ability to find our way, to the benefit of our inner world no less than the outer one.

About the author

The reviewer is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA, and adjunct professor emeritus at Columbia Law School, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA.