Illustration by Icinori

It is a little-known fact that limpets are brilliant navigators. Renowned for their ability to hold fast, they are surprisingly mobile. When submerged by the incoming tide, limpets set out on a slow journey across the intertidal boulders of their habitat. They move using a single muscular foot, rather as snails do, and deploy a rough tongue-like organ, known as a radula, to scrape the algae and young seaweed they consume off the rock surface. Once they have finished a foraging journey, each of these eyeless monopods then navigates back across the boulder to its “home,” a site on the boulder’s surface where it has rotated its shell back and forth repeatedly, such that it has incised an outline of itself into the rock. There it securely settles into its groove, ready to endure another cycle of hammering waves and pecking gulls.

Animal navigation is rich with such miracles and puzzles. “The greatest migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern,” M.R. O’Connor writes in Wayfinding, “a four-ounce argonaut that travels each year from Greenland to Antarctica and back again, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles.” Meanwhile, every twenty-four hours, billions of tons of biomass in the form of plankton undertake what O’Connor calls “an intentional vertical migration, rising to the surface of the ocean at twilight and descending at sunrise.” Bees, O’Connor notes, will meander out on long nectar-hunting trips, moving haphazardly from bloom to bloom, but when their work is done they will fly the shortest route possible back to the hive: the “beeline.” This remarkable spatial calculation is achieved despite bees being almost blind by human standards and having brains that weigh less than a milligram and contain fewer than a million neurons. Back at the hive they engage in what is known as the “waggle dance,” which appears to be a choreographic means of communicating complex wayfinding information to fellow bees.

The science of creaturely navigation is a contested research area, but as O’Connor reports, it is widely thought that many animals have what is called a “bio-compass” that allows them to use the Earth’s magnetic field to find their way. Magnetite has been found in the brains of mole rats, the upper beaks of homing pigeons, and the olfactory cells of rainbow trout. Live carp floating in tubs at fish markets tend to align themselves along a north–south axis. Red foxes mostly pounce on mice in a northeasterly direction. Dog owners, take note: your dog may well swing round to face north–south when it crouches to relieve itself.

Humans don’t possess inbuilt bio-compasses, but we do have something arguably more powerful: storytelling. Our remarkable navigational ability as a species is closely connected to our ability to tell stories about ourselves that unfold both backward and forward in time. For some evolutionary psychologists, this capacity for “autonoeisis”—what O’Connor describes as “the capacity to be aware of one’s own existence as an entity in time”—is what made us such good hunters. Faced with the tracks left by a prey animal, early humans were able to imagine beyond the immediately visible, reading those signs for what they might foretell as well as what they recorded: This deer’s prints show it to be wounded…We are driving this herd of bison into a box canyon, where they will be trapped…We excelled at tracking because we could generate what Michael Bond, in From Here to There: The Art and Science of Finding and Losing Our Way, calls “mental representations of the outside world that we can use to get around and orientate ourselves.”

“If we opened people up, we would find landscapes,” Agnès Varda observes in The Beaches of Agnès (2008), the autobiographical film she made when she was about to turn eighty, which tells a version of her life through the places she loved, among them the River Seine and the Belgian coastline. As metaphor, this is a gothic proposition: that we internalize certain terrains so fully they become part of us, visible to others only when the surgeon’s scalpel or the pathologist’s bone-saw begins its excavatory work. As physiology, it seems nonsense. Over the past half-century, however, neuroscientists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about the ways human brains perceive, process, and store our passage through space.

In 1971, Bond writes, John O’Keefe and Jonathan Dostrovsky isolated a new type of nerve cell in the brains of rats. These “place cells”—found in and around the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped structure that sits deep in the temporal lobe of the vertebrate brain—seemed to be sensitive to where a rat was in its environment, and to be activated in certain locations or when facing in a particular direction. Further research identified different types of place cells, each with a specialty. There are “head-direction cells” that detect which way you’re facing, for instance, and “boundary cells” that spark up when you are a certain distance from a wall or an edge, like the warning sensors that beep when you’re about to reverse your car into a fire hydrant.

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It is now thought that the human hippocampus—which also contains place cells—not only responds in real time to external cues, such as landmarks or thresholds, but also creates and stores cognitive maps of places and routes between them, thereby enabling navigation as well as orientation. Memory is deeply and mysteriously involved in this work; these cognitive maps are able to retain feelings of recognition and association, and are retrievable even when one is not in the place where they were originally made. This is what prevents us from having to renavigate familiar places, guessing our way from kitchen to lounge each time we make that brief journey in our own homes. This is what allows me, during sleepless nights, to mind-walk my way along a chain of remembered paths from the foothills to the fell-top of a given mountain in the Lake District.

Both Bond and O’Connor trace the art of navigation back to the first human wayfinders, those groups of hunter-gatherer Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa perhaps as long as 270,000 years ago, gradually spreading to live on every continent on the planet—as well as at sea and in space—adapting to new environments as they went, and over millennia developing sophisticated means of wayfinding in such disorienting environments as tundra, desert, ice cap, and ocean. “For the majority of our species’ existence,” notes O’Connor, “we traversed the earth using the landscape itself as a guide.” “We are explorers to the bone,” writes Bond, “and our spatial abilities—which, believe it or not, we still possess, despite our modern dependency on GPS—are fundamental to what makes us human.”

We might pause here on the grounds that any overarching proposition about “what it means to be human” is likely to be problematic. We will also want to know exactly what is meant by “wayfinding.” O’Connor characterizes it as a “science,” Bond calls it an “art,” and both of them celebrate it as the use, as O’Connor puts it, of “experience, habit, exploration, paper maps, signage, word of mouth, and trial and error to find [one’s] way around.” Wayfinding, she writes, is “an activity capable of engaging with and attending to places and nourishing relationships and attachments to them,” and among its benefits are enhanced sociality and good hippocampal health. It is definitely not—in the opinion of these writers—the deputation of navigational intelligence to a handheld device, such that one stumbles the streets in a zombied stupor, head inclined in compliance with the blue dot and a sotto martinet voice, causing Jane Jacobs’s famous “sidewalk ballet” to morph into something more like “sidewalk dodgems”: the collisions and confusions of urban walkers whose attention is, as O’Connor puts it, “seduced downward to our devices and inward to individualness.”

One of the many strengths of O’Connor’s book is its respectful attention to traditional methods of wayfinding. In the course of her research, she traveled to the Arctic, Australia, and the Pacific islands: three regions where traditional wayfaring and navigational skills are still practiced or are being reinvigorated as part of a broader cultural decolonization process. Colonial cartography—which reached its nineteenth-century apex in the British Raj’s “Grand Trigonometrical Survey” of India—tries “to chart and map unknown territory,” in O’Connor’s phrase, annexing new domains into a preexisting gridwork and assigning new place-names in a drive for standardization, like the Anglicization of Irish place-names by nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey officers, so memorably dramatized in Brian Friel’s play Translations (1980).

Indigenous navigators, by contrast, tend to develop terrain-specific techniques that are highly attuned to local indicators, and that use multiple modes and media (storytelling, written or drawn maps, weather signs) to create sophisticated compound systems for moving safely and well between places, often in harsh and hazardous environments. Over centuries, for instance, as O’Connor records, the Caroline Islanders of Micronesia developed the ability to read wave swells to determine the direction of land over the horizon. They combined this with detailed knowledge of “animals, reefs, wind, the sun, and, most important, stars” to create “vast mental maps of all the islands’ spatial relationships to one another” in their widely scattered archipelago. Navigators would memorize star “courses”—the “points on the horizon where sequences of stars rise or set over an island”—and use these to make routes between particular places, according to a system called etak. The most accomplished navigators can commit to memory star courses for over a hundred islands, totaling routes spanning several thousand miles.

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For Bond and O’Connor it was the first decade of the 2000s, when GPS-enabled phones and vehicles became common, that we began seriously to degrade our abilities as wayfinders. In Nature Shock: Getting Lost in America, Jon T. Coleman locates that degradation much earlier, between 1860 and 1887, when he claims “the ground shifted under Americans’ spatial cognition.” During these decades, a vast logistical and communication matrix—including the 15,000 miles of telegraph line built by the US Military Telegraph Corps during the Civil War—knitted the country together from coast to coast, creating a network of fixed points nationwide, with reference to which a growing number of individuals could be located. From then on, Coleman writes, North Americans no longer inhabited “relational space, where people navigated by their relationships to one another,” but rather “individual space, where people understood their position on earth by the coordinates provided by mass media, transportation grids, and commercial networks.” He suggests that “the best vantage point to see this transition and thereby to understand its consequences is on the edge of those spaces where people sometimes got terribly lost.”

The fascinating early chapters of Nature Shock focus on the first century and a half of settler colonialism in America, when contrasting practices of wayfinding played out within overlapping terrains of knowledge and ignorance. “While the Christians aspired to rise above the earth,” Coleman notes drily of the New England colonists in the 1630s, “they required Indian help to navigate the woods.” The later chapters of the book reprise a familiar argument, whereby in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the rise of industrial capitalism created a perception of “the modern wilderness” as “a romantic space where individuals might heal themselves and lose themselves.”

As Coleman tells it, from the early twentieth century on, national and state parks became designated areas where affluent urbanites, mostly white, might play at both wayfinding and disorientation. “Wild” nature was first conceptualized and then monetized as a site of “individual freedom, escape, and disconnection.” Lostness became repurposed as therapeutic, even exhilarating—but only when one could quickly find a way back to civilization. Thoreau, naturally, had a bon mot on this long before it became fashionable: “It is a surprising and memorable, as well as a valuable experience,” he wrote in Walden, “to be lost in the woods at any time.” John Billington, a young English colonist, would not have agreed: in 1621, out in the countryside around the Plymouth Colony, he “lost him selfe in the woods and wandered up and downe some five days, living on berries and whatever he could find,” before being discovered by a native Nauset group, who traded him back for knives, beads, and the promise of better conduct on the part of the settlers.

The art of getting lost is increasingly hard to master. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of GPS devices in existence more than doubled, from 500 million to 1.1 billion. Some market predictions foresee 7 billion GPS devices by 2022, as smartphone use further accelerates in India, China, and South America. If unsure of your location in a new environment, you can now locate yourself in seconds by consulting a GPS-enabled device, which consults with multiple satellites and ground stations to pinpoint itself to within a few feet on the Earth’s surface, indicating your position with that pulsing blue dot. Cartographically speaking, the blue dot is a perfect example of solipsism: I am here, and the given world will reorganize itself around me as I move. If you wish to travel anywhere, “turn-by-turn” navigation will then relieve you of the need to route-find with deductive reference to your surroundings, as you proceed in obedience to the instructions of a synthesized voice: In one hundred yards, turn left…

“Travel today is a condition of advanced capitalism,” declares Tim Ingold, an anthropologist interviewed by O’Connor. All three books argue that wayfinding is resistant to capitalism’s greedy colonization of every aspect of human experience. Ingold goes on to say, as O’Connor describes it, that today’s “technology-drenched” modes of travel are driven by a “relentless goal of greater efficiency and convenience,” and part of the “further commodification of our lives.” A walk in the woods is wasted time because it isn’t productive, unless of course you instrumentalize it as a mindful means of enhancing your productivity when you return to the desk. A run along the river must now be tracked, logged, and biometrically analyzed, then Instagrammed. A train or plane journey can’t be spent daydreaming, conversing, or even (whisper it) being bored, for this is time that could be spent on the laptop, catching up or getting ahead. The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has named this impulse always to perform productivity, even when one is supposedly at rest or play, “zaniness.”* For Bond and O’Connor, good wayfinding is anti-zany.

Does it matter that a powerful navigation device has been added to our cyborg lives, already vastly extended in time and space by countless technological prostheses, from pacemakers to desktop computers? Being lost is a deeply unpleasant experience, as you’d know if it’s ever happened to you. The word “panic” comes from the ancient Greek panikos, in reference to the goat-god Pan, whose presence caused sudden, irrational fear in those who entered his disorienting woods and forests. “Bewilderment” is an eighteenth-century coinage, meaning “thorough lostness”; to “wilder” is to go astray, to lose one’s path.

In his history of “getting lost in America” Coleman uses the phrase “nature shock” to register the severity of anxiety produced by being lost, and records scores of examples of hunters, walkers, and even Native scouts who have testified to its incapacitating effects. Bond concurs: “People who are truly lost…lose their minds as well as their bearings,” suffering “visceral thought-distorting fear.” While O’Connor acknowledges the countless ways in which GPS has saved and enhanced lives, from a global reduction in shipwrecks and the rescue of refugees on small boats to the joy in the freedom it makes possible during recreational travel, all three writers have grave concerns about the effects of GPS-enabled smartphones.

Coleman argues that “smartphones are making us dumber, atrophying our hippocampi”; their rise has inaugurated a “monstrous transformation,” “melt[ing] space and minds,” leaving us staggering in the shallows of a reduced attention span and infantilizing dependence on tech. Bond worries about GPS’s consequences for “cognitive health,” and approvingly quotes an Italian dementia researcher, Veronique Bohbot, who refuses to use satellite-navigation devices to tell her where to go. Bohbot encourages people, Bond says, to “exercise their spatial faculties” because they’ll appreciate the benefits “a few decades down the line.” O’Connor also cites Bohbot, and ventures that “the scientific literature so far indicates a possibility that a total reliance on GPS technology could over time put us at higher risk for neurodegenerative disease.”

Bond describes a famous experiment from 2000, in which Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London, measured the sizes of the hippocampi of trainee taxi drivers in London preparing for the formidable test known as “the Knowledge.” In order to become a licensed London cabbie, you must memorize the relative positions of, and optimal routes between, the tens of thousands of streets and landmarks that lie within a six-mile radius of Trafalgar Square. Drivers are rigorously tested on their mastery of the Knowledge before being issued a license. It usually takes a student four years to go from start to success, and the requirement remains part of the licensing procedure today; cabbies and their teachers proudly point out that in comparative tests, a human with the Knowledge regularly beats a GPS-plotted route for speed and efficiency. Maguire found that during the period of intense navigational and mnemonic effort involved in studying for the Knowledge, the hippocampi of the trainee drivers grew. A follow-up experiment determined that in retired cabbies, who no longer daily used their wayfinding powers, the hippocampus had returned to a “normal” size.

It is a wonderful thought: that we might physiologically enhance our capacity as navigators by thinking harder about navigation, much as athletes train to improve their aerobic capacity or twitch muscles. But some troubling questions arise. If the hippocampus develops in response to intense exercise of its navigational and orientational functions, will it therefore atrophy if chronically underused? What would happen if, say, after tens of thousands of years spent regularly exercising the hippocampus in the course of everyday life, a species were suddenly to delegate the majority of its navigational tasks to an external device?

Fears of the “monstrous transformations” performed by tech upon the human are staples of the history of science from Prometheus to Frankenstein, so it’s worth being skeptical of these unproven claims about GPS’s mind-melting consequences. But the history of human navigation is so long, and that of mass personal GPS use so short, it does seem important to assess what might be lost when we cease being able to be lost. O’Connor puts it well:

None of us is exempt from the ramifications of the device paradigm. We all seem to find it extraordinarily difficult to step outside the onslaught, to create the distance and perspective between us and our devices that might allow us to question what cultural or cognitive price is being paid in return for convenience.

In July 1841 the poet John Clare escaped from High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest, on the outskirts of London, and set out to walk to his home in Northborough, about eighty miles away. At the time, Clare was in his late forties and mentally unwell. He had been in High Beach for four years. Although his wife, Patty, was alive, he believed himself to be searching for an imaginary second wife, a version of his childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce, who had died three years earlier. He suffered auditory hallucinations on the road. He ate grass for sustenance, finding it to “taste something like bread.” Footsore and confused, he continued on until he reached Northborough. The walk took him four days.

In “Journey Out of Essex”—a minor epic of English travel writing—Clare described how he slept by the edge of the road each night, taking care to lie with his head pointing north, so that he would know which way to walk when he woke. That image has stayed with me since I first read Clare’s account twenty years or so ago: a man lost in mind, nevertheless seized by a homing instinct, and with his body a quivering compass needle that settled on north each night. Five months after reaching Northborough, Clare was certified insane on the grounds of being “addicted to poetical prosings.” He was committed to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, where he stayed until his death in 1864. His last words were “I want to go home.”

Mental illness can result in a loss of bearings so drastic that one’s footing in the given world slips and the moorings of the mind loosen. Yet within such bewilderment lucidities persist. Clare could remember his route home, though he did not recognize his wife when he met her on the outskirts of Northborough. My grandfather, lost in the mists of dementia in the final years of his life, found it hard to recall what he had had for breakfast but could reliably give the names, heights, and ranges of mountains he had climbed in his youth, and walk in memory back up Himalayan valleys he had not entered for half a century.

In the opening pages of From Here to There Bond describes how his grandmother, who also suffered from dementia, in the final weeks of her life “repeatedly used the phrase ‘Am I here?’” His book is both scientific and personal. Much of it is spent patiently explaining the neuroscience of wayfinding and spatial awareness for laypeople, with the calm tone of a seasoned science writer. But gradually, between and within the explanatory sections, Bond quietly and movingly discloses what I take to be his real preoccupation, which is Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. His book is an attempt to answer his grandmother’s question, which is also everyone’s question.

Alzheimer’s is a voracious type of dementia that consumes the place cells of the hippocampus. Once this begins, Bond writes, “patients have trouble creating cognitive maps of new places and recalling maps of familiar ones.” The disease’s ability to disrupt the brain’s navigation and orientation system is so acute that researchers are exploring whether spatial tests might be used to diagnose it earlier than any other forms of assessment. “The tragedy for Alzheimer’s patients,” as Bond puts it, “is that the compass they have always had is now fading, and their map is shrinking. Disorientation becomes their default state, leaving them lost in places they have always known.” This contributes to the distress—variously expressed as frustration, anxiety, anger, and violence—that sufferers feel: “They are incapable of finding their way anywhere and can be lost even in their own homes.”

Covid-19 has administered a global “nature shock,” leaving billions of us disoriented even in familiar surroundings. During full lockdown, we wandered our homes like the narrator in Xavier de Maistre’s mock-epic Voyage Around My Room (1794), who for forty-two days finds himself confined to his chamber, where he would “traverse the room up and down and across, without rule or plan.” Meanwhile, many countries—including China—have used the pandemic to ramp up their means of tracking and tracing citizens, making it even harder to get lost should one ever wish to. Invoking feichang shiqi, “extraordinary times,” the Chinese Communist Party is now using facial recognition technologies, “health coding,” and smartphone tracking to increase surveillance of its citizens: state security camera networks can segment facial-recognition data into dozens of sensitive subcategories, including eyebrow size, skin color, and ethnicity.

In Nature Shock, Coleman writes:

Thoreau urged his audience…to reconsider the settled spaces they inhabited…. “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Thoreau loved paradox, sometimes too much. It helps him find his mark here, though: one might expect our current lostness to test our self-reliance and glorify the individual, but in fact it proves our entanglement and reveals our codependence. When lost, we most of all need help.

Underlying all three of these books is a deep belief in the importance of collaboration and cooperation between humans and their environments, as well as between humans and other humans. Having read them, I’ve come to think that we might best imagine wayfinding not as a skill or art but as an ethic. The abilities that are cultivated in wayfinding—imagining things from different viewpoints, moving the mind backward and forward in time, seeing situations from other perspectives, weighing alternatives subtly against one another before making the best decisions, seeking information from others and giving it freely in return—might be the same abilities that contribute to a resilient, equitable community or polity. If this is wayfinding, then we need it now more than ever.