What wayfinding teaches us about history, memory and our brain

From our early ancestors leaving Africa to spread across the globe, to today's GPS directions, finding our way is an essential human skill. Our spatial sense is also crucial to our psychology, and even our ability to remember things. Science journalist Michael Bond explores the history and neuroscience of navigation in his new book, From Here to There.

Author Michael Bond explores the 'essential survival skill' of navigation in new book

Science journalist Michael Bond explores the history and neuroscience of navigation in his new book, From Here To There. (Harvard University Press/Tabrez Ahmad)

Humans are deeply spatial creatures. Our sense of space helps us get to know the world around us, find our way in it, and is tied to how we remember it. 

Anthropologists believe humans developed these pathfinding skills very early in our history. "It's an essential survival skill," science journalist Michael Bond explained. 

Bond explores the evolution of wayfinding in his new book, From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way. 

He spoke with Spark host Nora Young about the neuroscience of navigation, and the surprising relationship between space and memory. 

Here is part of their conversation.

So, what's going on in our brains when we are in an unfamiliar place? How do we come to have a mental map of where we are?

Most of that happens in a central area of the brain called the hippocampus. And the hippocampus contains cells that appear to have evolved particularly to enable us to understand the space around us. 

The one that's been the most studied is the place cells, [which] allow us to retain a memory of places that we visit, so we become familiar with places because of those cells. 

Then there are other cells, such as grid cells, which give us a sense of direction or distance travelled; head-direction cells, which work as a sort of internal compass, they keep track of which direction we're facing. And then there's a set of cells called boundary cells, which indicate when we reach a boundary in the environment, an edge or a wall. 

So all these spatial cells together contribute to what neuroscientists call a cognitive map, which is basically a spatial representation of the environment around us. And that cognitive map allows us to move around, be familiar with places, but also to take shortcuts and travel along paths that we haven't travelled before, and still allow us to retain our sense of place.

The most fascinating part of the book for me is the relationship between memory and our spatial sense, and the role of the hippocampus in organizing memory. In what way does our memory have a spatial component?

So the hippocampus is a spatial organ in many ways, we need it for navigation. But it's not the only thing that it does. 

It's very active in forming memories, particularly autobiographical memories: memories of events seem to be dependent on the hippocampus. If you think about it, it's very difficult to remember an event that you've been at without remembering where it took place. 

But the hippocampus is also involved in reflecting on the past, imagining the future, certain kinds of abstract thinking and problem-solving. These spatial cells in the hippocampus play a role in that. So the question is: why would spatial cells play a role in what are often non-spatial cognitive functions? And one theory is that this spatial mechanism in the brain is an ancient mechanism, and evolved early in our mammalian brain. Then, our more sophisticated cognitive functions built onto it, so they retain that spatial element.

To improve your navigation skills, Bond recommends trying to find your way in a safe environment without a smartphone or a GPS. (CBC News/Ottawa)

I consider myself to be a person with a poor sense of direction. Are there things I can do to improve?

I think so. The catch-22 is that if you have a bad sense of direction, it tends to make you anxious about exploring new places, because of the fear that you might get lost — and that's a very reasonable fear. But the way to counter that is to feel the fear and do it anyway. 

If you're in a situation where you're not going to be in any danger — for example, if you travel to a city that you don't know  — if you have your phone with you, turn your phone off or put it away and just dive into that network of streets and try to explore and retain a sense of where you're going. You can always get your phone out and find out where you are. 

If you do that once and you did okay, it'll give you the idea that perhaps you're not such a bad navigator. Perhaps it's just that you haven't given yourself, or been allowed the opportunity to navigate much in the past. 

Allowing yourself that risk of being lost is going to lead to increased experience, increased confidence.

Why does it matter? I mean, if I have my GPS with me, why do I need to worry about wayfinding and having cognitive maps and so forth?

On one level, I don't think it does matter, because wayfinding technology is incredibly good today. However, if you care about what's going on around you, then you may want to do it differently, because the one thing that relying on an electronic mapping device will do is that you miss what's going on, the world passes you by. So in a way, it's an aesthetic decision. 

If you want to feel a connection to the place you're in and the places you're moving through, then you really have to put that digital map away.

The other consideration is that when you're following a map on your phone, the hippocampus is pretty much passive. It's not being exercised. So if you care about that, put the phone away sometimes and challenge yourself. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Michael Bond, click the 'listen' button at the top of the page.