Anyhoo, on coming outside I somehow got turned around, and we wandered around vaguely (in the sleet I might add) until I spotted a tree with mistletoe growing in it. As far as I know this is the only mistletoe tree in the cemetery, and in fact the only one I’ve spotted in my ‘territory’. Once I saw it, everything fell into place, and I knew the way home.
It’s been shown that, in Western cultures at least, there are two methods of wayfinding: one that relies on landmarks, which is why you’ll get instructions such as ‘turn right at the supermarket, and then left at the flower shop’. The other relies on a ‘mental map’, which I think of as more of a top-down view, as if one were an eagle soaring above the land and noticing where to turn left and right. For a long time, it was thought that women naturally used the former, and men the latter, but more recent studies have shown that most people use both methods to find their way around, though they often have a strong preference for one or the other. I am strongly biased towards the landmark method, probably because I often notice natural signs, such as the mistletoe tree, or particular things that strike me as unusual or interesting. A typical route around St Pancras and Islington Cemetery would sound something like ‘walk past the cedars of lebanon, go along the grassy path past the little pond where the crows bathe, left of the chapel, down the road past the dog roses, turn right at the pet cemetery and walk through the woodland graveyard, don’t miss the swamp cypress’.
Of course, if you don’t know what a cedar of lebanon looks like, you’d be better off with the kind of instructions that my husband might give, which would be much more of the ‘go straight ahead, turn left, turn right’ variety. He might also throw in something about walking north or south but then he is Canadian.
Which brings me to another thing. In a recent study, people from the Nordic countries were in the top ten in the world when playing a navigation game. There was a theory that this could because of Viking seafaring ancestry, when presumably people who could actually find their way to land would have been positively selected for, but a more likely explanation to my mind is that, from a very early age, Scandinavian children are out and about, cross-country skiing and orienteering and walking. I suspect that this might develop that ability to notice where you are in relation to where you started that is so important in a landscape that might, in winter at least, be almost devoid of landmarks. I am reminded, also, of the way that the Inuit question their children constantly to make sure that they are paying attention to their location.
But to return to this question of men and women navigating in different ways. Is this just a Western thing? And what is going on?
Anthropologist Elizabeth Cashdan, from the University of Utah, is working with her colleagues and other scientists to look at societies in other parts of the world, and to determine whether there are sex differences regarding the ability to navigate. In two tribes, the Tsimane of Bolivia and the Twe of Namibia, there were no differences in the ability of boys and girls to point accurately to distant locations, and imagining being in one location and pointing at another. However, at puberty, girls in both tribes become much more anxious about physical dangers, and about getting lost.
This is borne out in the research of Sarah Creem-Regehr at the University of Utah. She found that Western women in an unfamiliar environment tended to roam less, to take less shortcuts and to return more often to familiar places than men. It seems that, almost universally, women are more cautious than men, and for good reason. I would love to see studies done on the navigational abilities and tendency to risk-taking of older women, however – I suspect that it would show that, post-menopause, women can be much more inclined to be bold and to take considered risks, at least while they have the health and the opportunity to explore.
To return to the Twe and the Tsimane, though, there is a twist – Cashdan found that although girls became more afraid of exploring their environment in both groups, it was only in the Twe that this led to a marked difference in navigational ability between the groups. The Twe in Bolivia live in dense jungle, and don’t tend to roam far anyway – the jungle is a dangerous place, and both sexes hunt, forage and fish in a relatively small area. The Tsimane in Namibia live on grassland, and the men travel long distances to visit family, while the women stay at home. The men therefore have greater navigational challenges, and continue to develop and hone their skills throughout their lives. The women are stuck at home waiting for some chap to turn up.
Interestingly, other markers for being good at navigation include having a good sense of smell – the olfactory part of the brain seems to vary in size with the hippocampus, which is where our locational sense ‘lives’. This is probably evolutionary – think of the salmon ‘smelling’ their way home, or the way that wolves home in on their prey.
So, it seems that navigational ability is something that is dependent not just on culture or sex, but on the opportunities that we have to test ourselves and to experience the world around us. I suspect that we all develop our own styles according to the things that we notice, be it plants and gravestones or houses or shops. One thing that does seem clear though is that we have to get out and notice things. Some scientists suggest that this is key to improving our navigational ability. Another technique is to look behind us often – for one thing you might spot a fox sitting on the path watching us depart, but it also helps our brain start to visualise our route for the way back.
One thing we definitely shouldn’t be doing is relying on our phones. One scientist, Dan Montello of UCSB, who has been studying navigational ability has this to say:
‘“I’m fairly confident that regular use of map software impairs a person’s ability to wayfind on their own,” says Montello. “It certainly impairs cognitive map formation.” He believes that satnav and phone map apps are undermining our natural navigation abilities, going as far as to describe this as “technological infantilism”.
Plus there’s always the danger of walking under a car, or into a lamp post.
So, what do you think, readers? I know a lot of you do a lot of walking. How do you navigate, and has it changed? What advice do you have for the navigationally-deprived? What do you do when you get lost? Do you view GPS as handy, or the work of the devil (or somewhere inbetween, like most things?)