Finding Our Way: The Science of Wayfinding

2,382 total words    

10 minutes of reading

A Review of M.R. O’Connor, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (New York: St. Martins Press, 2019).

My dad always had a strong sense of location, no matter where he traveled. He would step outside of his hotel and he would know—based on the time, the location of the sun, and the hemisphere he was in—exactly where the cardinal directions were. However, my parents have now taken to using a vehicular GPS when they travel to their vacation rentals in the U.S. northeast, as my dad has gotten lost one too many times.

I used to pride myself on not using a vehicular GPS (I absolutely abhor it), but referring instead to paper maps. There’s something about their tactile feel, and about seeing the bigger picture rather than the small road network you see on the GPS screen. But then I realized I have a GPS in my watch, and I use it when I go cycling or walking to tell me how far I’ve gone and when I have to turn around. I haven’t associated any landmarks with the various distances I travel on foot—I just follow what the GPS tells me. I know it’s accurate because it provides numbers similar to those of my cycle computer (which is based on the wheel circumference and number of rotations), but it’s disappointing to me that I’ve abdicated my understanding of and immersion in my local wilderness by relying on a GPS watch.

In Wayfinding, M.R. O’Connor covers every detail of navigation you might ever want to know. She deftly weaves together interviews with scientists and researchers, her own reading of the academic literature, and her visits to three different Native groups who navigate landscapes largely devoid of unique landmarks. These groups include the Inuit of Arctic Canada, the Australian Aborigines, and the Native peoples of the Marshall Islands and Hawai’i (whom she groups together as “Oceania”). Members of each group have had to learn how to navigate using tools other than landmarks. Indeed, O’Connor notes that humans traveled without maps until very recently in human history.


The term “wayfinding” comes from American psychologist James Gibson, who used it to describe spatial navigation. “There [is] no separation between mind and environment, between perceiving and knowing; wayfinding [is] a way that we directly perceive and involves the real-time coupling of perception and movement,” writes O’Connor. She sees wayfinding as a way to change our focus from constantly looking down at our devices, to looking around us and building connections and community with the places and people we see.

O’Connor covers a lot of academic ground in this book, largely because wayfinding is studied by such a wide range of disciplines. These include psychiatry and psychology (how groups perceive direction—for example, one group has no up/down or left/right—it’s all based on the cardinal directions); astronomy (navigating by the stars); neuroscience (what parts of the brain are used in wayfinding); ethnography and anthropology (how is wayfinding passed on through generations and what tools do they use); geography (wayfinding as creating a sense of place); and more.

When traveling in these landmark-free landscapes with experienced wayfinders, it can be easy to believe they have some special skill that no one else can have. But wayfinding is taught and can be learned at any stage of life.

One particularly interesting aspect of wayfinding in Western culture is that boys are often socialized to be good wayfinders. They are given opportunities to develop their perception of three-dimensional figures in space, which is critical for navigating, whereas girls are usually not given those opportunities. Researchers have found that in cultures where both girls and boys are taught wayfinding skills, they do equally well. It’s nurture rather than nature that lies behind wayfinding abilities.

In studying the Inuit, Aborigines, and Marshall Island peoples, O’Connor learns that all children, regardless of gender, are taught from an early age how to navigate these landmark-free landscapes. However, each of these indigenous groups have been affected by the loss of traditional knowledge due to residential schools and other forms of persecution to which they were subjected by European colonizers. There is a lost generation that was never taught these skills, so the remaining elders are turning to the current generation to try and teach them how to navigate in somewhat featureless landscapes.

The Inuit navigate partially by sastrugi (snow drifts that collect behind small pebbles and irregularities in the landscape), which help them identify the dominant wind direction. This gives them a reference direction against which they can travel. They also have names for almost every bay or camp or lake that help them navigate to those places on the landscape.

The Aborigines take their children out on Dreaming tracks, singing the song cycles of their landscape that are based on the location of specific rocks, trees, and the stars. This is also called “totemic geography,” which gives “a deeper significance to ordinary geography and makes it more memorable.” They have even created paintings of “The Dreaming” which are considered on par with Western maps. This is similar to western Apache culture in the United States, in which people pass on stories that describe journeys because they give the names of all the landmarks along the way. “A researcher heard an [Apache] cowboy reciting a list of place-names to himself for nearly 10 minutes straight . . . he [said] he ‘talked names’ all the time, that it allows him to ‘ride that way in my mind.’”

The Marshall Island natives train their children using sticks to show the direction of the prevailing ocean current and then have them lie in the bottom of a canoe offshore to sense where the waves are coming from and to identify where land might be located based on various patterns in the wave signal. For example, O’Connor talks to a Hawai’ian canoer who is in her late thirties and has just passed the final test in her navigation training. Now she can pilot canoes on longer voyages from Hawai’i to the Marshall Islands. This training and traveling have also become a way to “wrench [the natives’ identity] away from missionaries, colonial governments, and tourism economies—even scientists and anthropologists.”

It’s not just native groups that are trying to revive the practice of wayfinding. John Huth, an experimental particle physicist at Harvard University, teaches a course in traditional navigation to university students, trying to get them to inhabit space and time more concretely. In many cases, they don’t know the cardinal directions, or the prevailing wind direction. These are basic pieces of knowledge that form the building blocks of wayfinding, and students are completely unaware of them. Western societies don’t generally teach children wayfinding. Kids just roam around and figure things out for themselves. And as kids are forced to stay closer and closer to home to play (largely due to “stranger danger” worries), they’re using their navigation skills less and less. As they use devices such as cell phones, their gaze is trained downward to those devices instead of looking up and taking in the environment around them. Indeed, O’Connor quotes Tim Ingold as having said, “we are not self-contained individuals confronting a world out there, but developing organisms in an environment, enmeshed in tangled relationships. As we move through space, our knowledge undergoes continuous formulation. Wayfinding isn’t knowing before we go, but, as he put it, ‘knowing as we go.’”

Wayfinding isn’t just a way to traverse a landscape—it’s also a matter of safety. The Inuit mention the danger in not being able to wayfind and thus using a GPS to find the straightest route from A to B. This often sends hunters through areas that they would otherwise avoid because they’re dangerous—like the floe edge. Hunters have had to be rescued because they used their GPS instead of the old routes, which bypassed potential hazards. There is also the fact that they use snowmobiles instead of sled dogs, as many of the elders note that sled dogs are able to sense how to get home, and in a blizzard many Inuit have relied on the direction of their dogs. But it’s becoming too expensive to own a dog team, so snowmobiles are used much more often. The other factor affecting Inuit activities is climate change. While in the past they could predict the weather fairly accurately, the weather has become so unpredictable that they’re not sure what to expect from day to day, as the environmental clues keep changing.

Researchers have found that the brain is highly plastic when it comes to developing grey cells in the hippocampus, which is responsible for recording the what, where, and when of our long-term memory. Memory is required at all times while wayfinding, which is one of the functions of the hippocampus—to store memories. There is some indication that kids who are more physically active and fit have a larger hippocampus than those who don’t, and that they do better at memory tests. Some also suggest that navigation is a story problem, as “the human mind is built to encode topographical information in the form of stories.” As Howard Eichenbaum notes, “The hippocampal system is encoding events as a relational mapping of objects and actions within spatial contexts, representing routes as episodes defined by sequences of places traversed.” And O’Connor adds, “Maybe the metaphor at the heart of navigation is not following a map but listening and intuiting the progress of a piece of music” (i.e., the songlines of the Australian Aborigines).

One of the negative impacts of not wayfinding on a regular basis is that the hippocampus gets smaller. Researchers have discovered that if you live in the same house and follow the same path to work each day and eat in the same place and follow the same path back home, you aren’t exercising your hippocampus and will lose grey matter sooner. They recommend varying your route to and from work, where you have your lunch, and what you do at different times of day. They also recommend getting lost on purpose—where you have a vague sense of where you are but need to work out how to get somewhere familiar without using your cellphone GPS. This type of navigation works on the plastic cells of the hippocampus and helps us build new connections in our brains.

This is a great idea, but what if you work at home? There are no different routes to and from your office in the basement. Yes, you must go out and get groceries and other things, but there’s only one route to the grocery store and another route to the pharmacy. Because I don’t live in a walkable neighbourhood, there aren’t a lot of options for me to take different routes to places I visit regularly. What about people who have been rooted in place for decades, or who are housebound? What does this mean for our hippocampus and the plasticity of our brains, and our potential to get Alzheimer’s—which is associated with a small hippocampus?

The book doesn’t limit itself to human navigation, and includes some neat tidbits, like how the word “beeline” came from the fact that bees take a circuitous route to find pollen but head back to the hive on the shortest route possible: a beeline. There’s also the mystery of how so many migrating animals rely on Earth’s magnetic field for their perambulations of the globe. These days, we also use navigational terminology to describe the virtual space we inhabit on the worldwide web. We use terms like “search for content, go forward and back between sites that we visit.” O’Connor notes that, “It wasn’t until the twentieth century that navigational technology released us from needing to pay any attention at all.” On the horizon now are driverless cars. These won’t require our attention, and we’ll get into certain transportation ruts—our automatic vehicle will always choose the same, fastest way to get to work every day. As O’Connor puts it, “Where we go will increasingly be confined by the technology we use.” I’ve seen this in action at a dog park I used to frequent in Lethbridge, southern Alberta. The original park had dirt trails, and people wandered all over it with their dogs. Then the city put in an asphalt trail, and the number of people on the side trails declined significantly as everyone stayed on the paved path. The paved area got a lot busier, while the non-paved trails got a lot quieter.

It’s to O’Connor’s credit that she provides such specific reasons for connecting with the Native groups she chose. Many times it seems as though researchers visit specific groups just because they happen to be “in the area.” I was also impressed in that she is the first environment writer I’ve read who brings her child with her on her trip to the Marshall Islands—and then proceeds to include them in the narrative. This is an excellent example of how we can integrate life and work, and show others that it’s possible.

This is a book to read slowly and stop regularly to think about. It is dense with scientific information—all well written, but a lot to absorb. There is also the braiding of the stories of the Native groups with the science of navigation and wayfinding, which is fascinating, but again, takes some time to follow and understand. One thing I was surprised not to read more about was orienteers, who do timed races while traveling across country. They use a topographic map to find control points, where they collect a marker before heading on to the next point.

Toward the end of the book O’Connor leaves us with two rich observations that should linger in our minds:

 “Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.”

“Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.”

Photo credits: Sarah Boon

  • Sarah Boon

    Sarah Boon is freelance writer who covers the environment (wildfire, drought, flood), women in science, and mental health. Her work has appeared in LongreadsLiterary HubHakai MagazineTerrain.orgScienceNature, and other publications. She is a co-founder and serves on the Board of Science Borealis, where she was formerly the editorial manager.

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