The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
This is not your usual book about wayfinding. Instead of instructions on what to do it is a book about how and why we navigate.
Who has not gotten lost? And who has not used GPS to orient themselves? I remember driving from Christchurch to go stargazing at Lake Tekapo with my very good friends C and C. They pulled out a map and insisted that we navigate by it, instead of by my dear phone. I made fun of them, especially because they were working for NASA. I said what kind of space scientists are you, using such archaic technology?
To be fair, I did get lost once following Apple Maps in 2008. Since then the technology worked like a charm. I love technology and I understand that there are hiccups along the way when developing a product. Plus, it is fast. It turns out that fast might not the best way to go.
Slow is the way to go
Slow is the way to go, according to ancient wisdom, shared across the globe by nomadic people. Why is that? The book explains how our ancestors were able to navigate and walk vast amounts of space – the entire Earth. They took their time for that journey. It’s hard to see that now, in the age of speed and space travel, which is why the author, M.R. O’Connor goes back to find the last true nomads of the world today. They share their experiences with her and their learnings. The author is a journalist, and this transpires through the book, as she keeps the reader entertained with many aspects of wayfinding, while she changes scenes and concepts at very fast pace for a book that argues we need to take things slowly. She then goes to scientists who study the brain, and listen to their side of the story. For those who like a fast paced action changing adventure driven reading experience, search no more.
In her book about wayfinding, O’Connor also talks about human stories as we follow her account on the Inuit, Aboriginal and Pacific people whom she interacts with. We learn about the impacts of colonialism on these cultures, as the journalist brings forward some of the unresolved issues still grieving in these cultures today.
Changes in the brain
Wayfinding discusses how our brain changes when we participate in the process of orientation, how it changes when we stop using it. It reveals which part of the brain we use when we navigate in time and space, and what other activities and functions are related to that part of the brain. And if you get a good navigational brain for yourself, your children might inherit that too. From my city-dwelling residence that I have not changed in 11 years, it is hard for me to even imagine how for some people travelling is truly what we call “the destination”. Yet, for someone who moved all the way across from the other hemisphere it is easy to see the lure of seeking new worlds. But is the predisposition for travelling genetic? And what happens to our DNA when we do? Why is it that taxi drivers from London have a large amount of grey matter in their brain?
Need to go somewhere? Some of these extraordinary people accounted for in the book don’t need a map. They just need to hear about how to get there.
Reading this book made me realise how space travel will be a completely different experience than what we call travel, now that I understand what it takes to make a journey on Earth. Most certainly, for our own sanity we will have to reinvent what we will be doing on long duration space flights to keep our mind functioning at optimal parameters. Alzheimer’s disease, PTSD, dementia and even depression have an answer that is related to our capacity to navigate – pun not intended, physically and mentally in this world.
Live long and prosper
This brilliant book is good to read no matter what you’re interested in, but especially if you are keen to learn how to live long and prosper. It turns out, using our brains to find our way is the way. But that’s not the only learning of Wayfinding, that is full of adventurous stories weaved with neuroscience.
M.R. O’Connor also got lost following a GPS device. That got her interested in what happens when we outsource navigation to a gadget, which she discusses in the book. She explores how navigation is a journey not only through space but also time and explains how we do it, what type of strategies we use, route or survey, which fire place neuronal cells or grid cells.
What is navigation really?
I picked up the book to learn about Pacific Navigation. This is part of a project that I currently work on, looking at a comparison between European and Pacific Navigation. We are amazed at how Pacific navigators travelled a world that is an ocean so big that from Google Earth looks like half the world, without instruments to guide them. We forget that throughout most human evolution, navigation without instruments had been the rule. This book is here to remind us of it. That such adventure requires a vast amount of memory.
Perhaps there is something to be said for rote learning and memorising, something that the fabulous navigator Jack Thatcher, who navigates without instruments in the Pacific, was telling me as well in a conversation we had recently. Schools today might discard rote memorisation, he said, but maybe they just need to reconsider this, as some information has to be learned like that, referring to the information he had to memorise for his oceanic travels.
The Greeks had thought great things of those who could remember a lot of information, and had even strategies to make sure they were good at it. If you have ever heard of the memory palace method or recalling information as you pretend you walk through a house then you know what this is about. Aboriginal people, O’Connor says in her book go even further, they treat the landscape in which they exist as a memory palace instead then reinventing imaginary ones (p139). But if you damage the place that the brain uses to navigate, you will lose the capacity to form memories of life experiences (p172).
So what is navigation really?