Natural Navigation – How Do We Find Our Way Around?

The Mistletoe Tree in East Finchley Cemetery

Dear Readers, this week I have been wondering about navigation. Why is it that some of us seem to be naturally good at finding our way around, even in unfamiliar territory, while others seem capable of getting lost in within a hundred metres of their house? I was prompted to think about this last week when we went for a walk in East Finchley Cemetery. We found an area that we hadn’t explored before, because it had been fenced off for maintenance, and very interesting it was too – look at the vistas through that Italianate Crematorium that had previously been inaccessible unless you were actually there for a service.

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?)

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12 thoughts on “Natural Navigation – How Do We Find Our Way Around?

  1. SilverTiger

    I lose my way very easily and then have to ask passers-by or use my phone mapping app. Tigger, my partner, on the other hand, has what we call her “inner pigeon”. She possesses a remarkable talent for finding her way around. For example, we once explored a town new to us (I forget which), wandering at random for some time. Then Tigger led us straight back to the station, including by some streets we had not visited on the way out. She “knew” they led us in the right direction.

    Very occasionally, however, the “pigeon” goes to sleep and we are at a loss until it “wakes up” again!

    Tigger also bucks the common belief that women don’t understand maps: she loves maps of all kinds and understands them perfectly well.

    Does Tigger use the “map” or the “landmark” method of navigation? I don’t know, but I suspect a combination of both plus a “mystery” ingredient!

      1. SilverTiger

        The upside is that we go to places with a minumum of trouble but the downside is that it makes me lazy so that I forget to learn the way for myself!

        When I first moved here with Tigger, I famously bought a copy of the London A to Z to find my way home from the local shops!

  2. Anne

    I too enjoy maps, although if I am navigating my way around an underground parking, for example (this only happens in a city such as Cape Town for we don’t have any where I live) I tend to take careful note of the floor and number! When walking around unfamiliar streets, I tend to look out for landmarks. Walking in the countryside is a different matter: there the general environment, particular trees – and even the sense of smell play their part. I abhor instructions that tell me, for example, to turn south or north-west! Left, right, straight ahead are more useful. Something to note that appears to be common to most of us who get lost is that we tend to move in circles!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      There was an interesting article which I didn’t include, which said that people who have a natural assymetry (i.e. one leg a tiny bit shorter than the other) tend to walk in circles in the dark. But then it also appears that people who get lost in forests etc often also do that, as you point out, in a fairly predictable way, which can make them easier to rescue. What funny creatures we are!

  3. FEARN

    You might like “The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” by Tristan Gooley. It can be a bit long winded (I think it is an amalgamation of three earlier books, and by the end he is just listing all the things that didn’t fit in anywhere else) but there are some really key facts about navigation in there. His analysis of nettle patch distribution for instance is a really neat demonstration of how to interpret your surroundings. He is particularly strong on night walks, but that may not appeal to many in this post electric light bulb era. If you haven’t already, give it a read.

  4. FEARN

    One of the pleasures of moving to Scotland was the increase in geographical features (and their part in fixing your place in the landscape). The coast, mountains and lochs never featured in a Hertfordshire list of directions. Usually directions consisted purely of road numbers. The waymarkers were human constructs, pubs, factories, bridges. (20 Mile Bride, because it was 20 miles out of Kings Cross by the railway it traversed). The points of the compass were irrelevant compared to the networks of road and rail with their own dictates – think bypass and ring road. I would travel from Welwyn to St Albans or Stevenage without a clue as to whether I was heading NSE or W. In retrospect “The Great North Road” (the A1000) should have been a big clue. My favourite Scottiish location name is “Rest and Be Thankful” which stretch of road has unfortunately been notorious for blockage by landslips. I think there are Devil’s Elbows and Beeftubs both sides of the border. But here I am veering off from navigation to toponomy.

  5. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    I could almost write a book about the times I’ve taken the wrong route, gone 180 degrees out of a wood in the wrong direction (and still tried to make what I was looking at ‘fit’ with the map) and, worst of all, gone round in a complete circle and back to where we started (with 3 friends on our bikes on holiday in Guernsey in ’79). I think practice does make perfect though (well almost) and although I used to use a map wherever I went, I now rely almost completely on my GPS (when I can download the route of course). I do generally have an idea in my head where I’m going, but the GPS ensures I take the correct fork in the path. (Except of course when I put it away, thinking I knew the route and didn’t look at it on the 4th day with my mate Pete and we ended up taking the wrong fork!) We live and learn!

  6. Liz Norbury

    When I was in junior school, I would regularly go wandering quite far afield with other children in our street, and we never had any trouble finding our way back. I don’t know how we did it! Since I was in my 20s, I’ve loved the excitement of arriving in an unfamiliar city – in this country or abroad, alone or with friends – and unfolding a brand new map in order to start the process of getting to know the place. If I do get lost, I retrace my steps until I see something which I recognise, whether it’s a tree or a building – even though I may not have consciously registered it the first time I walked past it. It’s amazing how much information our senses absorb while we’re focussing on other things! When I started exploring the three miles of sand dunes around St Ives Bay, I often lost my bearings – but gradually I started recognising different features of the landscape and giving them names (Blackthorn Valley, Sugar Hill, the Great Highway) as though I was drawing a map or giving directions. Whether in city or country, I never, ever use my phone to navigate – I find the screen is just too small to be of any practical use!

  7. rescuedogdexter

    Never use satnav, never use a phone app when we are out and about. Used to work in the City of London and could navigate both by the mental map and by landmarks (usually pubs). I still can to a greater degree. If I am going somewhere that I have not visited before, then I will check the map and keep the directions in my head. Had to pick up a car from Wakefield a while ago, knew the route from Buckinghamshire including the road numbers and never looked at a map during the trip. I know people who have worked in offices on Lime Street for 25 years or so and they couldn’t tell you where Billiter Street is (directly in front of Lloyd’s of London and joins Lime Street.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I used to do the bus route thing too! From your writing I would say that landmarks form a big part of your navigation, but I bet you have a mental map going on as well.


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