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26 February 2020updated 12 Mar 2020 10:13am

Michael Bond’s Wayfinding: a compelling study of our ability to get from A to B

This fascinating book suggests that navigation is a question of psychology.

By Mark Cocker

In this fascinating book about our gift for what Michael Bond calls wayfinding, he makes a compelling case that our ancient abilities to get from A to B aren’t just a matter of geography. The skills that allow humans to orient in physical places is, in large part, transferable to the navigation of social and cultural settings too, and could even help us map what we might call ontological space. “Where are we?” and “Where are we heading?” are questions just as applicable to our deepest psychological states as they are to an exterior landscape. 

Bond cites the powerful if still speculative claim by some neuroscientists that wayfinding is evident even in the very structures of language. So often human speech is shaped around prepositions – “in front of”, “besides”, “to”, “from”, “in”, “under”, “above”, “below” and so on – all of which describe spatial relations between places and objects. The possibility is that we acquired speech in order to communicate about the nature of our physical surroundings and the whereabouts of food, shelter or other resources.

 What is indisputable is that our need to negotiate complex and dangerous physical environments has led to the development of a suite of specialised components in the brain. Many of these have now been identified as “place”, “head direction”, “speed” and “grid” cells and are largely located in either the entorhinal cortex or the hippocampus. When these parts are regularly exercised, as in the case of Inuit hunters – or, famously, in London taxi drivers – they become supercharged and increase in size. 

One thing is clear from Bond’s book: these navigational abilities are still most brilliantly demonstrated among the Earth’s first peoples. He tells the story of an Inuit party kayaking off the coast of Greenland in the 1930s. We know the details because also present was Frederick Spencer Chapman, a British explorer and noted survival expert of his day. He freely admitted to being totally disoriented when thick fog descended on their location. 

His Greenland companions, however, were unfazed and worked out their precise whereabouts by listening to snow buntings on the shore. Each of the males of this small pied bird has a springtime vocalisation that contains a highly individual repertoire, but there are also phrases associated with certain regions – analogous to a human dialect. By noting these site-specific sounds, the Inuit fixed their place and as they sailed along, so the snow buntings “sang” them from one bird’s territory to the next. 

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Bond explains that while this was little more than a daily act of wayfinding for the Inuit, it would have been impossible without the most heightened awareness of their immediate surroundings and a deep personal commitment to that attentive practice, and also without the hunters’ alignment to a very long cultural tradition. These gifts set them both in space and at the heart of their community.

The author explains how those individuals good at navigation are known by an Inuit word Aangaittuq, meaning “attentive”, which speaks of more than just the person’s wayfinding nous and describes “their whole attitude to life”. For these reasons those good at navigation are also viewed as cultural leaders and teachers. 

In a way, this same skill set has shaped  how all of us know and see the world. Via indigenous peoples everywhere we have inherited a multitude of place names that reflect those traditions. The most telling that Bond cites are the toponyms created by the Western Apache in central Arizona. Almost every landscape feature they encountered was given a hugely evocative and precise name, such as Goshtl’ish Tú Bil Sikáné (“water lies with mud in an open container”) or Kailbáyé Bil Naagozwodé (“grey willows curve around a bend”). 

Wherever European imperialists operated, by contrast, the naming process became largely about appropriation and political conquest. It ceased to be a genuine geographical response and the colonists’ lexicon now looks arbitrary and deracinated. A good example is the feature that Tibetans called Chomolungma (“Goddess Mother of Mountains”), which the 19th-century colonials named after a British surveyor, George Everest. 

A central premise for Bond’s book is his anxiety about our modern reliance upon digital technology, especially the mobile phone and satnav. These are apparently playing havoc with the ability to navigate, but they are not alone in diminishing our common birthright. Just as damaging has been the increased physical restriction we impose on children because of a misplaced fear of “stranger danger”. This is despite well-founded evidence that just one-hundredth of 1 per cent of the children who go missing in the US are abducted by strangers.

Yet children’s free space – how far they are allowed to roam – has fallen in all countries where it has been measured, in some cases by more than 90 per cent. Even worse, in some ways, is the tyrannical privilege we have accorded the motor car over our pedestrian selves. The sum of these changes is that in the space of three generations we have put a virtual stop to children free-roaming in nature, and even withered their ability to negotiate simple suburban streets. 

Bond is not only interested in how we find our way, but also in how we get lost and how it affects us. Most distressing is his account of what happens to our cognitive processes when we are completely disoriented in our physical surroundings. The neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux describes getting lost in forests or other challenging environments as triggering “a hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion”. 

This, in turn, leads to panic and even hallucinations, and the urge to start running wildly in any direction – which of course only worsens the predicament. It is proven that most people in this state run around in circles and end up largely where they started. When you are lost it is hardest of all to do what is safest and simplest: stay put. It is in keeping with Bond’s commitment to the subject that he tries deliberately to get lost himself and acknowledges the state of blind terror it induces.

However, the most affecting part of his reflections upon being lost is his analysis of the impacts of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, which diminish function in precisely those centres of the brain that determine navigational capacity, the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. This collapse in understanding of their physical surroundings leaves dementia victims as devoid of spatial recognition as they are stripped of most of their interior lives. Bond wonders whether mental exercise that employs and strengthens the hippocampus could offset the worst effects of these terrible diseases. 

Part of his observations of dementia arise from the author’s experience with his grandmother, who would frequently  request to know, “Am I here?” I can vouch for this extraordinary state of ontological and physical confusion, because on one occasion my 93-year-old, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, having asked for the thousandth time whether my mother was dead, responded with a fresh inquiry: “Am I dead?” 

Mark Cocker’s most recent book is “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape) 

Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way 
Michael Bond
Picador, 288pp, £20

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy