Peak & Northern Footpaths Society (est.1894)

Book Review: Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way By Michael Bond, published by Picador, 2020

This article is from Signpost 69, Autumn 2021

Pauline Williams, Member

The author, Michael Bond is a freelance science writer and editor. A consultant with New Scientist, he specialises in psychology and social behaviour, and how people interact with their environments. One of the purposes of this book is to explain how our brains make cognitive maps that keep us oriented, even in places we don’t know. From earliest times, our ability to navigate has been essential to us as a species, both in relation to our environment and to the peoples we encountered. Being lost, he states, ‘touches something primitive, as for our ancestors in the Palaeolithic it would have meant almost certain death’. We have retained some of that primitive fear, as anyone who has been lost will recognise.

Exploring how individuals react when lost, Bond draws on examples from Search and Rescue teams in the UK and USA. Quoting Dartmoor Mountain Rescue, ‘many hikers go wrong when they ignore their compass or their calculation of distance and try to ‘retrofit’ their surroundings with where they think they should be on the map’. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland report that an increasing number of walkers and climbers don’t bother learning how to navigate, instead choosing to rely on GPS. He is critical of people’s over reliance on GPS whilst also acknowledging how its technology can be life changing for those with a terrible sense of direction. However, he warns that such technology makes the rest of us worse at navigating when we don’t have those devices to hand. One common attribute that all great navigators possess is an ability to pay attention. He draws on the experiences of individuals such as Shackleton and Francis Chichester to illustrate how their abilities saved their lives, and those of others, in Shackleton’s case. If we are constantly walking around with our heads down looking at a device we ignore all that is around us. We don’t notice landmarks or topographical features and have no real sense of where we are.

The book traces developments in research into the study of ‘spatial cognition – how the brain acquires and uses knowledge about space’. There is a lot of detail about different experiments carried out in order to determine the role of the hippocampus, among other regions of the brain, in determining our ability to navigate. Navigation relates to all areas of our lives from social situations, visits to unfamiliar towns or cities, being in wide open spaces and even within our own minds. Many have found that walking has improved their mental health over the last eighteen months.

The chapter on brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s looks at research being carried out into possible causes and cures. ‘Lostness is not an inevitable consequence of old age’, he says, but our spatial skills do get progressively worse after the age of 65. Even more reason to keep reading the maps! This is a very interesting and informative read.

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Page title:Book Review: Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way By Michael Bond, published by Picador, 2020
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