I had a review of Colin Ellard’s new book in the NY Times Book Review on Sunday:
Let’s begin with a quick geography quiz: Which city is farther west, Los Angeles or Reno? If you’re like most people, you carefully reasoned your way to the wrong answer. Because Los Angeles is on the coast, and Reno is in landlocked Nevada, you probably assumed that Los Angeles is farther west. It doesn’t matter that you’ve stared at countless maps or taken a road trip across California — the atlas that we keep in our head is reliably unreliable.
Colin Ellard, a behavorial neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, probes this and other shortcomings of human spatial intelligence in his delightfully lucid book “You Are Here.” (The Canadian version of the book is titled “Where Am I?” Apparently, Americans don’t like asking for directions.) While modern life is full of tools that keep us from straying off course, from Google maps to the iPhone, Ellard sees the need for such contrivances as a sign that we’ve already lost our way. We’ve become hopelessly disconnected from our setting, burdened with a brain that needs a GPS satellite just to get across town.
The book begins with a highlight reel of animal navigation skills, which is just another way of showing us how far we’ve fallen. Ellard argues that the human talent for abstraction — we can easily imagine places and spaces that don’t exist — comes with a hidden cost, which is that our mental maps of the physical world have become sparser over the course of human evolution. Unlike insects, we can’t keep track of the patterns of polarized light; unlike loggerhead turtles, we don’t pay attention to magnetic fields; unlike geese, we’re not very good at path integration, which is why we have to write down directions that involve multiple turns. Ellard takes great care in explaining the experiments that revealed these astonishing biological talents. He describes, for instance, the research of Rüdiger Wehner, a Swiss scientist who glued tiny stilts made of pig hair to the limbs of desert ants. Because the insects with longer legs consistently overshot the nest and got lost, Wehner demonstrated that ants have an internal odometer: they carefully count their steps when searching for food. (This is only one of the reasons the microscopic ant brain is such a miracle of navigation. Ants can also find their way back from 20,000 body lengths away, which is equivalent to a human being able to remember an uncharted route more than 22 miles long.) The chickadee is no less impressive: it can store food in nearly 80,000 different locations and then find the secret cache as easily as we find the fridge. Humans, meanwhile, can’t even keep track of the car keys.
I go on to discuss Jane Jacobs and why it’s best not to wear underwear when navigating on the open sea. If you’re interested in the neuroscientific take on navigation, I suggest learning about hippocampal place cells, which are even cooler than mirror neurons.