- What’s going on in our brain when we navigate?
- The connection between memory and navigation
- Lessons from the inuits on navigating
- The two strategies your brain uses to navigate
- How does navigation possibly explain childhood amnesia?
- Why kids should be able and allowed to freely explore their environment
- How animals navigate vs. how humans navigate (and what we can learn from them)
- Storytelling and navigation
- The relationship between language and navigation
- The existential threat of GPS
- What the implications of using our brain less in navigating?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 7 Reasons You Should Still Keep a Paper Map in Your Glovebox
- How to Read a Topo Map
- AoM’s Land Navigation Manual
- John O’Keefe
- Episodic memory
- Exploring Life’s Trails
- Arctic terns
- The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
- A Primer on Mental Mapping
- How to Quickly Memorize a Deck of Cards
- Movies Every Millennial Dad Should Introduce to His Kids
- The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Huth
- How to Track Animals
- How to Escape and Evade a Tracker
- If You Can Always Be Found, Can You Ever Get Lost?
- Michael drives into a lake (from The Office)
Connect With Maura
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: If you’re like most people these days, you probably rely on the turn-by-turn directions given by a smartphone app to navigate to where you want to go. While Google Maps has certainly made getting around a lot more convenient, my guest today makes the case that by relying on GPS to navigate, we’re turning our backs on a skill that makes us uniquely human. Her name is Maura O’Connor. She’s a science journalist and the author of Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate.
We begin our conversation discussing what goes on in our brain when we navigate and how we use the same part of the brain that we use for memory when we’re getting around town. We then discuss how human navigation differs from animal navigation and the cultural tools that humans have developed over millennia to help them find their way, including storytelling and songs. Maura then shares research that suggests our language influences our sense of location and space and how our ancient ancestors sowed the seeds of the scientific method when they were tracking animals while hunting. We also discuss recent research that suggests relying too heavily on GPS may increase your risk for dementia and be linked to other mental health problems. We end our conversation by musing on how it is that using GPS can shrink our sense of autonomy, while navigating on your own feels existentially empowering.
After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/wayfinding. Maura joins me now via clearcast.io.
Maura O’Connor, welcome to the show.
Maura O’Connor: Hey, thanks so much, Brett. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: You got a book out called Wayfinding. It’s all about human navigation and the history of navigation. How navigation makes us human. I’m curious, was there something that’s behind this book? You had a personal experience that you were like, “I need to start researching and writing about human navigation?”
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I definitely didn’t think much about this topic until… I was using my smartphone and my GPS for a long time. I had a first generation iPhone. I was using it as a journalist to get around New York and track down interviews and chase stories as a newspaper reporter. I really trusted my smartphone. I mean, it is an incredibly powerful tool. But then I was on a trip in rural New Mexico, very different from Brooklyn or Manhattan where I live. I wanted to go to a hot spring. I was with my partner. I put in the name of this place into my smartphone. We followed these directions down these increasingly shrinking dirt roads. Finally, the phone took us to the edge of the Rio Grande River in this like hundred foot cliff that just went straight down to the water. I guess this hot spring was somewhere at the bottom of that cliff, but obviously, we had no way of getting there.
Since then, I kind of collected these stories about the crazy lengths that people will go just because they put so much faith into their GPS. I also started realizing I just didn’t really know what we are doing when we navigate, what’s happening in the brain when we try to get from A to B. As a science journalist, I just felt that this was a topic that offered a lot. It offered me a way to think about the impact of a technology on our lives, but also to think about neuroscience and culture. What might be lost when we outsource this skill to a device?
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the neuroscience here. Let’s begin there. What do we know? What do scientists know about what goes on in our brain when we navigate? Are there specific parts that we use?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. There’s a really fascinating part of the brain called the hippocampus that we use when we are orienting ourselves in space and getting from A to B. We have these multiple sensory systems that include vision and touch and even smell that seem to converge upstream, so to speak, of this part of the brain, the hippocampus. All of that information is passed on to what are called place cells. These are cells that were discovered by a neuroscientist by the name of John O’Keefe. He won the Nobel Prize for this research in 2011. Most of what neuroscientists know about place cells are from rat studies. There’s this kind of classic study where you put a rat in a maze. What these neuroscientists are able to do is attach single electrodes to these place cells and see that they fire in correspondence with where that rat is in physical space.
Then there’s other cells in this part of the brain. There’s cells called head direction cells and grid cells. But the most interesting thing about the hippocampus to me is that it’s not just where this knowledge of space where we build spatial representations is kept. It’s also where we have what’s called episodic memory, which is our recall of all the events of the past that we remember. It’s kind of the locus of our autobiography. We don’t really know which came first, memory or these so called cognitive maps in the brain.
Brett McKay: We’re going to talk about this throughout this discussion. There’s a connection between memory and navigation. If we can’t remember things, we wouldn’t be able to navigate. Maybe if we can’t navigate, we can’t remember things.
Maura O’Connor: Exactly. Like I said, we’re not sure which came first, but it’s a fascinating question. Did humans have better memories because we had this hippocampus and then we started using memory as a strategy for navigation? Or was it that in our long distant evolutionary past, we had to navigate a lot in search of food, shelter, other people? Then we adapted and started using our hippocampus to start keeping memories of the past.
Brett McKay: Throughout the book, you go and visit what we would call traditional cultures. Right? Inuit Indians, the Aborigines in Australia where they are still using traditional methods of navigation. You start off with Inuit and how they navigate traditionally. There’s insights there about how we use our memory to navigate.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I went to Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic. I’ll say that there are hunters in Nunavut who are using very, very modern tools and technologies to get around. They’re driving snowmobiles. They’re using guns, not harpoons. But then there are some who are increasingly cognizant of the idea that navigation is also integral to aspects of culture that they don’t want to let go of. Traditional navigation is increasingly being taught to a younger generation. Not just because it helps them survive on the land, but because it’s a point of cultural pride. It has to do with history, language, land stewardship.
One of the first people that I spoke to in Nunavut was a hunter and community leader by the name of Solomon Allah. One of my first questions was, what makes the Inuits so superior when it comes to navigating in this Arctic landscape which to people from the south, which is anybody who’s kind of below the Arctic Circle, makes it so difficult? It just looks kind of blank. It’s snow and it’s ice. He right away without hesitation said, “We have bigger memories than you.” He attached that to the fact that traditionally, Inuit culture is an oral culture. From the time that you’re young, you are memorizing stories. You’re memorizing routes. There’s more need for you to have a bigger memory than in perhaps other places in the world.
Brett McKay: Also, another thing with Inuits, they notice things that we wouldn’t notice. Right? We would go to the Arctic Circle and everything looks the same. They would actually say, “No, there’s a difference here.” They are able to pay attention to that difference.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t say that the Arctic landscape is totally homogenous, but there are places there where you don’t have huge kind of mountainous landscapes. It can be incredibly flat. If you’re traveling on sea ice, there may not be very many landmarks whatsoever to distinguish one part of the ice from another. What you see are these amazing strategies where Inuit hunters are using things like the patterns on the snow that are created by wind. If you know the direction of the dominant wind, you can read this compass in the ground. Or you might use a rock. Here in Manhattan, I can look at the Empire State Building. I can say, “Okay, I know that’s north of me.” But in the Arctic, there are no Empire State Buildings. But you could use a rock instead.
Their capacity for attending to detail is really incredible. They might not just use the shape of a rock, but also the pattern of lichen and moss to remember, “Oh, I came this way. Now I know that I’m on the right track.”
Brett McKay: Memory. The Inuits basically from the time they’re little kids, they’re learning these stories that tell them how to navigate that landscape. This is happening in our hippocampus, which is connected to navigation and memory. But as you highlight in the book, there’s two ways to navigate. There’s two strategies our brain uses to navigate. What are those two strategies?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. Neuroscientists call them different circuits. The most important is what I was describing with the hippocampus and place cells. That’s the spatial learning strategy. We learn to navigate using the relationships between landmarks. That information and those spatial representations are held in the hippocampus. When we return to a place we’ve already been, those same place cells are firing in the same pattern. That’s what is, in a sense, formulating our cognitive map. Once we have that map, it allows us to create novel routes to any destination from any starting position in the environment. It’s a little confusing, but that’s what’s called an allocentric perspective. It’s the kind of bird’s eye view of the environment and the ability to infer relationships from different landmarks and create new routes.
Then there’s this other circuit, which is very different. It’s really about habits. It’s called the caudate nucleus. It’s how we get around to really familiar places. It’s kind of like being on autopilot. It signals to us to turn right and left in response to a queue without us really having to think about it or having to use our memory to figure it out. You can see why evolutionarily, that might have been really useful. It allows us to get to the supermarket in our neighborhood without having to retrieve our memories. It allows our mind to wander and attend to other things. What’s really, I think, interesting is that we use one strategy over the other, but we never use them at the same time. The more we use one, the less we use the other. As we age, we seem to use these hippocampal spatial strategies less and less. That corresponds, in many cases, to decreased volume in this part of the brain.
The concern is whether or not we are, in fact, impacting our memory capacities, the vigor of our memory, if we’re not really exercising the hippocampus and its spatial strategies enough.
Brett McKay: Well, in that second strategy, and we’ll talk more about this later in detail, but that second strategy of the queue, that’s basically Google Maps. Right? It’s like you got your phone on. It says turn right here, turn left there, and you just follow it. You have no bird’s eye view of where you’re at.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I think the important difference to think of is that when we’re using the turn-by-turn function of our Google Maps or smartphone, we are not having to create or utilize our own spatial representations of the landscape around us. We are essentially just following the directions that are supplied to us. Turn right, turn left. It’s not a one to one analogy with that second strategy. It’s a little more complex than that. But I think it’s a really good parallel to draw and distinction to make. When we are using our turn-by-turn directions on our GPS device, we really aren’t using that hippocampal spatial strategy. Yeah. That’s the question. What’s the impact of that? There aren’t a lot of long-term studies to tell us yet. But the initial studies that have been done are fascinating. The short answer is it could have sort of nefarious effects on our memory and other skills.
Brett McKay: Well, this idea, this connection of spatial navigation to memory you suggest can, in the book, partly explain childhood amnesia. Right? Which is the idea that at a certain point in our childhood, we don’t remember anything. Right? You can maybe go four, maybe three, and then after that, you can’t remember anything. How could navigation possibly explain that?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. Some people scoff when I bring this up. They say that they can remember things from when they’re one or two. That may be the case. I certainly can’t. I had this experience in my own childhood where I don’t have a lot of memories from before I was about five or six. Then it’s like I can remember everything. I have these very vivid memories that often take the shape of maps almost of where I can recall the rocks or the trees that I used to climb on. I can remember where I got the bus to go to school. I was really interested in why this was. I was talking to neuroscientists. They’re the ones who said, “Yeah, there’s this phenomenon called infant or childhood amnesia.”
One reason we don’t have these very vivid memories from our childhood is that our hippocampus isn’t fully developed. As children are exploring space and creating spatial representations in the brain, that they’re kind of training the hippocampus and its ability to retain memories so that by the time they’re six or seven, their memories are actually fully functioning. They’re not perfect. There’s this kind of idea that through childhood, there’s a process of cognitive development. It raises the question of, how important is the idea of exploration, independent play, and self-locomotion? Them walking, not being carried even, and how that might be an essential part of cognitive development and maturation.
I think that’s really important right now because we know that we’re increasingly a risk adverse society. Not just in the United States, but there’s been studies done in Japan, Australia, Europe, and many parts of the world where children are really limited in their independence. It’s such a drastic change from just even two or three generations ago.
Brett McKay: Yeah, there could be because it’s all tenuous theories. By not allowing kids to explore, we might be stunting hippocampal development which could affect memory.
Maura O’Connor: Perhaps. I mean, we don’t know what the offshoots are of limiting independent play and autonomy, and the time that children are allowed to just freely play outdoors. I think even if there’s no studies pointing to directly cognitive problems as a result of that, I think it’s important to ask, should children know that Google isn’t the only way to find information and that GPS isn’t the only way to get somewhere? What’s the importance of self-reliance and autonomy and not needing to be dependent on these devices in their lives and being able to figure it out? Yeah. I think spatial knowledge is important for even intelligence. It’s problem-solving. It’s grit. It’s all these things that we want children to have in order to succeed and be fulfilled human beings. It does seem like, in some ways, these devices could compromise that.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about how other animals navigate because I think that can give us some insight on how humans navigate. You can see the difference. Because we’ve all heard those stories of animals that travel thousands of miles like the salmon. They were born thousands of miles away from their homeland, but they’re able to swim back to the same place where they were spawned. How do animals navigate? How is that different from what humans do?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I mean, I have a whole chapter in Wayfinding about animals because I was shocked to discover that scientists don’t actually know the answers to a lot of these questions of how animals do just unbelievable feats of navigation. Yeah. You’re bringing up salmon. The examples are almost countless. You can look at almost any species of animal.
Brett McKay: Butterflies.
Maura O’Connor: From frogs. Yeah. Butterflies. Even aphids have occasional capacities that we don’t fully have explanations for. I mean, one thing is that if animals were prone to getting lost, it’s likely that their species wouldn’t have survived. It seems through natural selection, different species of animals have created these really sophisticated tools in some cases for finding their way, and in some cases over many thousands of miles. One of the best examples, I think, is these bar-tailed godwits, this type of bird that travel 6,000 miles over open ocean from Alaska to New Zealand. If they made a directional error of just even a few degrees, it would mean that they were hundreds of miles off course in the middle of the ocean, and they would die. Then there’s Arctic terns that travel 40,000 miles each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again.
How they do this has been explained in different ways, and I think is still, like I said, a bit of an unanswered question. I think the most compelling explanation is this magnetic compass idea, that they’re able to read the Earth’s magnetic field. But what that biological mechanism is that allows them to do that has been so far undiscovered. There’s different theories out there. I think what’s fascinating is like if you compare the capacity of a person to an Arctic tern, we are just the worst. If you put a blindfold on a person and just say, “Okay, walk in a straight line,” they’re going to start walking in a circle that’s measuring about 66 feet in diameter. But they’ll tell you that they’re walking in a straight line.
We just don’t have whatever biological mechanism it is that animals have that allows us to dead reckon. But what we do have is memory. We’ve created these cultural traditions that connect us to places. Knowledge and the building of knowledge and the passage of knowledge from one generation to the next and these cultural skills and practices seem to be how we have made up for whatever deficiencies we have compared to leatherback turtles.
Brett McKay: Right. One of those cultural traditions that we’ve developed is storytelling. Humans are storytelling animals. What is storytelling’s connection to navigation?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I think the hippocampus is this place that, as I said, allows us to have a recollection of events. It allows us to orient in space now in the present moment. It’s also amazingly the place that allows us to envision the future. People who don’t have a hippocampus, whether because they suffered some kind of trauma to it, or there’s cases of people having had it removed as a treatment for epilepsy, they have a difficult time envisioning even tomorrow, what they’re going to do tomorrow. I became interested in this idea that we have this narrative capacity of thinking about the past, the present, and the future, beginning a middle and an end because of the hippocampus.
I came across the work of this artificial intelligence pioneer at MIT, Patrick Winston, who he sadly passed away last month. But he was interested in a lot of the similar issues like, what is the source of human intelligence? He thought that it was storytelling. That if we can create supercomputers that can understand stories, then we are on our way to creating real artificial intelligence. There’s just this, I think, really compelling relationship between who we are as a species and how we survive. What is part of our rich cultural heritage? Storytelling seems to be at the heart of all of that. I was delighted and surprised to find someone working in a completely different field like artificial intelligence who had from a different direction come to some of the same ideas.
Brett McKay: As you highlight in the book, a lot of these traditional cultures that still use traditional navigation methods, the way they pass that along is through stories. The Aborigines in Australia, they tell stories about the dream world. Right? That’s how they navigate.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. You can think of it in the sense that navigation could have helped us to develop this narrative storytelling capacity. But then likewise, humans seem to use stories as a mnemonic device to find our way. The best example of that is, like you said, I think song lines, which Aboriginal Australians believe that all of the rocks, the trees, the gorges, and rivers of the landscape were created by their ancestors who traveled through the world in the dream time. Those journeys are recorded in songs and stories that people learn and memorize. They’re handed down from one person to the next. I think I didn’t find a lot that was written on this topic, but there’s some really compelling evidence out there that the song lines are connected to music and law and land stewardship in Aboriginal culture. But they’re also, in a simple way, a mnemonic device for finding your way across the landscape because you literally have these stories that are describing the routes taken by their own ancestors.
They’ll be, “From this rock, you’ll see these trees. From those trees, you’ll see this gorge.” I just found this to be such a beautiful example of how culture and navigation have intertwined and it’s so rich.
Brett McKay: Also, you see this connection between navigation and narrative as a device to help you remember things. The ancient Greeks had this. That’s how they memorized giant speeches. They would actually create physical maps in their head of a building. They’d say, “Well, now I’m in this room. In this room, I see this thing. Because I’m in this thing, I’m going to talk about this thing. I’m going to move over here.” It’s the same thing. They’re creating the narrative but also navigating through an imaginary space.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. The ancient Greeks seem to have understood this spatial proclivity of the brain. That it’s easier to remember things when its associated with a place. The difference, I would say, between what the ancient Greeks were doing with these memory palaces and what Aboriginal Australians were doing when they used the songline as navigating is that the Greeks are creating imaginary spaces in the brain. But the Aboriginal Australians are using the actual landscape as a memory palace. Maybe that’s a little confusing, but I think they’re both doing the same thing, as you said. It’s because the brain has this proclivity for an ability to retain spatial knowledge and memory perhaps easier than just abstracted information.
Brett McKay: When we travel, we’re not only navigating through space, but we’re also navigating through time. Is there a connection between space and time when we navigate in our brain?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I think that throughout the research for this book and writing it, I started to think of time as a human construct and as a measure of how far we have traveled. One reason why I started thinking like that is because of how much we use the vocabulary of space to talk about time. We say it, “It was a long time.” Long. “It was a short time.” A short time. There are some neuroscientists who think that the cells in the hippocampus aren’t just mapping space, that they may also be mapping time. There’s a neuroscientist, Howard Eichenbaum, who actually called them time cells.
There is this fascinating connection. I think the neuroscientific research in that subject is still growing, but I can’t wait to see where it goes in the next 10 years because it may be that our understanding of what the hippocampus is doing has been limited by this focus on rat studies. Rats may be really interested in space. Humans may also be able to harness the hippocampus to map space, so to speak. But we may also be mapping many other dimensions of our experience. Time being one of them, but maybe also social hierarchies or relationship or even maybe music.
Brett McKay: Back to the Future captures that idea that time is place. Right? They’re traveling to the 1950s, like a place. Right? It’s a place, not time.
Maura O’Connor: I just watched that movie the other day with my five-year-olds.
Brett McKay: Oh, you are a great mother.
Maura O’Connor: They thought it was pretty cool.
Brett McKay: You’re passing on important culture here. Okay. When we navigate time, we’re actually probably navigating space in a weird way. Let’s talk about language and navigation. How does language influence the way we navigate or how does navigation influence the way we talk or language?
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. I think when I started researching the book, it was hard for me to imagine that there was a way of navigating that didn’t rely on maps. Maps are so important to Western culture. The idea that you could somehow find your way, especially in a very challenging landscape like say the Arctic or the desert without a map, seemed beyond the scope of my own imagination. But what I started talking to different anthropologists about is just the astonishing range of human navigation systems that rely on observation, memory, perception, and environmental cues. Some cultures orient by wind, others by sand, waves, and then some rely on trails, roads, or signage or maps like we do.
Then I started to realize that even beyond differences in strategies and environmental cues, there’s even differences in the language and the words that we use from culture to culture to describe space. Most likely, if I were to give you directions from my office to my home, I would say, “You’re going to take a left out of the front door. Go down to the stop sign, take a right,” and so on. But in other cultures, they wouldn’t even have the words right or left to describe space. They would have to say, “You’re going to turn south, go to the stop sign, and then you’re going to turn east.” The question is, does using a language that requires you to know your orientation in space all the time in order to speak, in order to communicate, make you better at navigating? All the evidence points to yes.
There’s these incredible studies in the 1970s with this doctor and explorer, David Lewis, where he was going into the western desert in Australia. Going out with community leaders and hunters and trackers. He would bring individuals to a place and then ask them to point to an unseen landmark, often like a dreaming site that was part of a songline and say, “Okay, point.” Then he would see how accurate they were. They’re incredibly accurate. They were able to do it almost flawlessly. Then 20 or so years later, Stephen Levinson, a psycho-linguist who was studying these differences in language was doing the same studies. Many of his students went around the world and found examples of many other cultures who also use these geocentric terms like east, west, north, and south instead of the more egocentric terms of left or right.
There really is this picture emerging of just the incredible cognitive diversity and language diversity in human culture.
Brett McKay: So far, we’re weaving this tapestry. As you said, this book is like a tapestry through connecting all these different things. Navigation is connected with memory. Memory is connected to storytelling. Navigation is also connected to storytelling. Language is connected to navigation. You also make this case that navigation is partly responsible for science, what we call the scientific theory today. How so?
Maura O’Connor: Well, I think the first person who exposed me to this idea was John Huth who’s an astrophysicist at Harvard. But he also teaches this course to Harvard undergrads about navigation. I just got so interested in why somebody would be teaching a Harvard seminar on how to tell which direction the wind is going from the clouds. It would seem like pretty basic knowledge. John was talking a lot about how he feels empiricism, this ability to derive knowledge directly from our sensory experience and from our own perception, has kind of fallen away in modern education. He became really interested in teaching his students these basic skills so that they could develop their own capacity for gathering empirical knowledge and using that as the foundation for then the rest of their scientific knowledge.
He’s actually not the first one who’s kind of drawn this connection between science and navigation. There’s a small body of literature out there that talks about how when you’re tracking an animal, you are creating hypotheses from our observations of the world. You’re sort of imagining yourself in the place and time of how that animal was traveling through space. Then you’re testing that hypothesis against reality. Am I going to find that animal and be able to kill it to eat it, and so on? John Huth and other people who talk about this use that as an early example of the scientific process of creating hypotheses and testing them against reality of using our empirical ability, our perception, and our sensory experience to build knowledge.
Brett McKay: If you want to become a better scientist, it sounds like you need to go to a tracking school.
Maura O’Connor: Maybe.
Brett McKay: Maybe.
Maura O’Connor: I think John believes, and many of the students that I talked to, and I sat in on this classroom, feel that this course not only gave them a sense of confidence that they didn’t have before, but was also almost philosophically affecting for them. They started thinking not just in terms of, how can I find my own way in the world? That became an existential question for them too. That was really interesting for me. I think the book often does veer into that more philosophical, existential territory because of that. We use the metaphors of navigation to talk about our own lives all the time. Are we on the right path in life? Have we deviated? Have we reached our destination? I mean, there’s these ways in which the language of navigation helps us to understand the bigger journey of how we move through life, not just how we get from A to B.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about that. We talked about this sort of existential threat, possibly, of our decreasing ability to navigate without GPS. I think most of us… I think you cited the number 81% of people in America are using some sort of GPS device to get around. It’s a big increase. I think in 2008, it was something like 10%, or 8%. I mean, it was really small. Understanding that navigation is connected to memory, memory to navigation, what are the implications of us relying so heavily on GPS to get around instead of using that spatial navigation?
Maura O’Connor: Well, I’ll start with the more philosophical argument. I think if we’re always trying to avoid getting lost, if that’s our main concern, that basically means we always have to know where we are going before we set out somewhere. In some ways, GPS doesn’t really leave room for exploration, for the unexpected, for discovery. For this idea of forging our own path, of going on the less traveled road, of this capacity to set off into the unknown and then find out as we go. That’s why, I think, the term wayfinding is such an interesting term. It indicates that this isn’t just a sort of rational calculation of how to get from one place to the other in the fastest, most efficient way possible, but that it’s a process in which as we go, we accumulate knowledge. We know as we go. I’m definitely not advising people to get lost especially in a wilderness situation. I think even Solomon Allah or hunters in the Arctic would just scoff at that notion.
But what I am suggesting is that people maybe think about and turn their attention to how they are finding their way. Even developing those navigation skills rather than just almost mindlessly relying on a device that may be shutting off opportunities rather than allowing them. I don’t want to dismiss how useful GPS can be in some situations. Some people may feel very uncomfortable going someplace they’ve never been before without having a device to help them get there. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. But what I’m talking about could be as simple as deciding to go out and create a new cognitive map of a place that they’re less familiar with. That’s different from getting lost. It’s more about intentional exploration.
Brett McKay: No. One thing I’ve noticed in my own life about this idea that getting lost is an important part of actually figuring out where you are in life. I’ve lived in Tulsa. I moved to Tulsa in like 2006. This is when Google Maps was on the scene. When I moved here, I used Google Maps to get around. 10 years later, I still don’t know… I’m not very good at navigating Tulsa without Google Maps. I’ve gotten a little bit better, but I couldn’t do that thing like, “Well, if I’m here, you can just take this road to get to this part of town.” But if I go back to my hometown where I grew up as a kid, I can get around anywhere. I mean, I don’t need GPS. I know how to get anywhere, anywhere. It is because I spent part of my life just developing that mental map in my head of that place.
Maura O’Connor: Exactly. Yeah. I had the same exact experience. In the end of the book, it’s basically me going back to the town, more like a village actually, is really rural, that I lived in from when I was six to about 10. Not using a GPS, not using a map, and I could find my way around as though I had just left yesterday. Similar to your experience, I had a friend describe to me how he lives in LA now and he cannot get across town without using his phone. He’s like, “Why is it that I can remember every bike route that I ever took when I was 10 years old growing up in England. I can’t find my way to this coffee shop that I’ve gone to a couple times a week for the last three years or something?”
I think that shows how this kind of nefarious quality of using the device, which is that the more we use it, the more we almost depend on it. It’s a bit of a vicious circle where we actually don’t develop the confidence and literally the memories of places in order to be able to put the device down. I think so much of it stems from this sense of anxiety. We don’t have a lot of tolerance for the idea of wasting time anymore. That makes sense. I don’t want to get lost on my way to the airport just to prove a point about wayfinding. But if our whole lives and our whole days are being organized around that principle of putting convenience above other types of experience or putting efficiency and saving time above other types of experience, that’s when I start thinking, “Wait a second. It’s important to maybe step back and think about the value of these other ways of finding our way through space.”
Brett McKay: Another possible downside of relying on navigation, as we rely on that more queue response navigation which is parallel to what we do when we use GPS, we’re using our hippocampus less. We know that the brain is plastic. If you use one part of your brain less, it shrinks. What are the possible implications of us using our hippocampus less to navigate?
Maura O’Connor: Yes. There’s been some studies that show brain activity differences between people who are using say a paper map and people who are using turn-by-turn directions given to them by their GPS device. There was one in 2017 recently where they gave people navigating the Soho neighborhood in London these two different strategies. What happens when people are using those turn-by-turn directions in the hippocampus is that that part of the brain just kind of seem to lose interest in the environment. It just lost interest. Even when they encountered a new street, a new piece of information, or a new part of their potential cognitive map, they just weren’t really interested. It seems that that part of our brain’s cognitive mapping system isn’t really engaged. Then there’s other studies showing that people who rely on Sat Nav devices or GPS devices in their cars, afterwards, they can’t draw the route with a lot of detail as those who didn’t use one can.
We actually seem to be paying more attention to the screen than the environment when we’re using these devices in our cars or even when we’re walking. Whether or not that has a direct effect on say the vigor of our memory is an open-ended question. But there’s simultaneously a very, very large body of research in say Alzheimer’s disease that shows almost universally for people who have Alzheimer’s, they show atrophy in the hippocampus. The same with depression, PTSD, dementia, memory impairments. It used to be that neuroscientists thought this was the product of these diseases, the atrophy and the hippocampus. But now, they’re wondering if the reverse is true. Could this be a predilection for these diseases?
Increasing hippocampal health in any way that we can seems to be something really positive we can do especially as we’re aging. We tend to rely on habit more and more rather than utilizing these spatial strategies.
Brett McKay: I think one neuroscientist you talked to said she doesn’t… She tries to use GPS as little as possible because of this possible connection to Alzheimer’s.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah. Véronique Bohbot is in Montreal. She’s done amazing studies looking at the differences between the hippocampus and the caudate nucleus, this other habit strategy of navigating. Yes. She has said, and I was speaking with her a few months ago, and she’s still not using a GPS. I think that a GPS can be useful, and I will use it. I need to use it when I go to New Jersey. I find it really hard to get around New Jersey without GPS. There’s so many highways. It’s very confusing. I’m not a purist about this, but I try to pay a lot of attention. What I’ll do is perhaps I’ll look at the map on my phone before I go somewhere in the same way that you would look at a paper map. Then I will, in my mind, remember the sequence of directions that I need to take to get where I want to go. Then I will put it away.
I think that’s one way of using some of the benefits of GPS, which can tell you exactly where you are. But also being aware of the fact that exercising the hippocampus in a very conscious way is, I think, quite healthy. Véronique Bohbot has created almost a whole curriculum for how people can do that. It has to do with eating well. It has to do with exercise. It has to do with consciously creating and exercising our cognitive maps.
Brett McKay: Some people think, “Well, relying on a map or mental map, that’s going to make navigation harder.” I’ve actually noticed in some situations, it’s easier to navigate without GPS or the turn-by-turn because you have that instance where you end up almost running off a cliff in New Mexico. That’s an extreme case when you rely on GPS. The annoying thing about it is they only give you directions for like so far. Right? What I’ve encountered is I’ll be like in the wrong lane. Right? I’m on the left side of the lane. I need to be on the right side of the lane. But it doesn’t tell you until the last minute and you’re like, “Crap, I can’t get over there now. I have to go a mile down and make my…” If I just would have known in my head, “I need to get off at this exit waiting ahead,” it would have made navigation or getting to that place a lot faster.
Maura O’Connor: Right. Yeah. I think that’s totally true. I can’t count the number of times where I or someone that I know has used the GPS and then inadvertently created more confusion. It’s taken twice as long or even more to get where he wanted to go. I had a friend of my mom’s telling me the story about leaving her house to pick up her friend at the airport, which is an hour away. Then on the way back, it took them four hours to get home. She could not figure out why. There were times where she was literally driving next to the highway, but she was on a smaller road that was adjacent to it. Then she got home and realized that her GPS had been set on walk rather than drive. There’s this way in which GPS, because it’s so powerful, we suspend our disbelief or our own confidence in our perception and ability to rationally think through these things. We just are like, “If the GPS is saying it, it must be true.”
The best example of that, I think, is in The Office where Michael and Dwight are driving in their car. Michael starts driving into a lake and Dwight’s saying, “Stop.” Michael’s like, “I can’t because the GPS is telling me. I have to do it.” That’s laughable but there are countless examples of this. I had someone send me an entire Facebook page that he had created because he teaches truck drivers a safety course. He created this Facebook page just to document the number of new stories about truck drivers following their GPS into just ridiculous insanely unsafe conditions because they just think if it’s saying that, it must be true. Yeah, the examples just go on and on.
Brett McKay: All right. Maybe use your GPS less. It’ll help you get to the place where you want to go faster. But it can also help you become more human and are wrong about it. Maura, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Maura O’Connor: Well, I regularly contribute to the New Yorkers’ Element section, which is their science and tech section. I write about all kinds of stuff: snow leopards, autonomous vehicles. I also have another book called Resurrection Science, which looks at some of the philosophical questions raised by technology but in a totally different context, which is that of conservation and biology. Yeah. I encourage people to look at in those two places or also buy a copy of Wayfinding.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Maura O’Connor, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Maura O’Connor: Yeah, thank you so much. This was really fun.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Maura O’Connor. She’s the author of the book Wayfinding. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about her work at her website mroconnor.info. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/wayfinding where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
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