The Frontal Cortex

You Are Here

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 RĂ¼diger 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.


  1. #1 Bruce
    July 13, 2009

    I think GPS will take us a big step farther down even from where we are. Memorizing a map requires building a spatial representation in your head; GPS eliminates all that, and it seems likely to me that it will help kill what’s left of our spatial sense.

    Anybody remember how to do long division in your head? I used to, until I got my first pocket calculator. Now, to heck with it.

  2. #2 Onkel Bob
    July 13, 2009

    GPS Epic Fail.
    I am pretty good at navigation, partly through intuition but mostly through training. (USAF SAR and later a long distance hiker) The trick is to understand the limitations, both of the map and of your memory. How many times I covered the terrain reflects how many times I consult the map, but I always verify.

  3. #3 Rob W
    July 13, 2009

    Huh — my GPS actually helps me build a far more detailed mental map far better than when I was just navigating via road atlas.

    I can only hold relatively few directions in my head at a time, and can’t normally stop to recheck the atlas while driving in traffic. So navigating by atlas meant plotting out a *simple* route (if sometimes slower) and memorizing chains of turns… completely non-spatial, unfortunately. I’d get comfortable with specific routes, but rarely have a good idea of where in 2D space I was.

    Navigating via GPS is totally different — the GPS plots a route and provides a safety net — so I can pay attention to landmarks around me, and take detours out of curiosity when I have time. It also often takes me on completely unfamiliar roads when going from A to C instead of A to B… instead of sticking to the routes I know already. So I keep filling in more terrain in my mental map. When I get confused, I pull up the region in Google Maps and zoom around to get a good sense of how everything fits together — something that I could never do as easily flipping through pages in the road atlas.

    I suppose that some people must use GPS to avoid thinking about directions at all — but is that the majority, or just the dumb ones? I don’t get the impression that *everyone* who has a GPS will just frown and hand me their device if I ask directions to some nearby landmark.

  4. #4 Paul M
    July 14, 2009

    In Britain, we have a similar illustration; which city is further west – Bristol or Edinburgh? The tilt of Britain is just enough to make Edinburgh the westernmost.

  5. #5 n. evans
    July 14, 2009

    TransPac winner Alfa Romeo’s crew confirm nav’ skills best if left unhindered by any support… however, also ‘trust but verify’ just to not be overconfident or ‘cocky’.