by Stan Purdum
In my recent article “The GPS in Your Head”, I mentioned that not every cyclist seems to have the “aptitude that makes stringing streets, roads and paths together to create bike routes easy.” Kerry Irons, one of the readers who commented on the article, confirmed that observation by telling of riding with a PhD physicist in a county where virtually every road was laid out on a grid.
“Roads were either north/south or east/west,” said Irons, “and many of them were numbered (e.g. 11 Mile Rd.) all referenced to a meridian and a base line. Roads were spaced one mile apart or at least in multiples of one mile.” Despite this seemingly intuitive layout, said Irons, his PhD friend “never knew where we were, never knew what direction we were travelling, and never knew which way to turn if somebody said something like ‘Let’s go north.’”
Irons added, “Whether nature or nurture, some folks just don’t ‘get it.’”
Another commenter, Charles, likewise attested to the fact that not everyone gets it. “I have found myself … being a default route finder/navigator for bike rides and other trips/excursions. Some of my riding friends have taken to calling me ‘Magellan’ although my ability/interest in finding my way around just seems to me to be an innate aptitude, and I often find myself amused that others are confused/lost when the route is trivially obvious to me.”
Irons also recommended a book on this subject, Inner Navigation, by Erik Jonsson, and I ordered a copy. While my inner navigation ability is pretty good, the topic interests me, and I wondered if Jonsson would elucidate why not everyone has that ability. I was somewhat surprised that he neither delved into that topic nor spent any time on how one might improve one’s internal route-finding skills. Nonetheless, he does an excellent job of describing what cognitive maps are, how they are developed, how they function, and how they can be fooled (misoriented).
Jonsson did give what seemed to me a clue as to why not everyone has good inner navigation skills. In describing how cognitive maps form, Jonsson said, “Our natural curiosity, the interest with which we look at new things, especially those that stand out as landmarks, is enough to create the cognitive map without any conscious effort.”
But what if someone doesn’t have that “natural curiosity,” at least about landmarks? Does the lack of such curiosity hinder the development of one’s cognitive map? I suspect so. My wife can read while in a moving vehicle (something that makes me nauseous when I try it), so when we are on long journeys and I am at the wheel, she often reads books or magazines. She’s smart and knows lots of stuff about things that don’t particularly interest me. But periodically on the trip, she may look up from what she’s been engrossed in and say, “Where are we?” I’m always able to answer because I’m doing the route plotting and watching the road signs, but if we’re on a route we’ve traveled before, I also know the answer because I’m always noticing — and apparently remembering — various unique buildings, geographic features, highway intersections, roadside vistas and other landmarks that help orient me.
My wife can find her way when she needs too, but it doesn’t come naturally to her, and she prefers to let me do when we’re together. Now, thanks to Jonsson, I suspect that’s because she doesn’t have the interest in visual landmarks that I do.
In my case, I know that interest was there from a young age. From the time I was 12 until I was 14, my family lived in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Saratoga Spa State Park was a couple miles from our house. The park had several attractions, but what drew me to it repeatedly was its natural environment — its forested grounds and hiking trails. I walked to the park as often as I could. I had a map of the park, the sort produced for visitors, and it showed its roads, picnic areas, buildings, attractions and the waterway that coursed through the grounds, but none of the park’s trails. So, over two summers, I spent many happy hours following every trail, figuring out my own links between them, and penciling them in on the map.
Here’s a bit more from Erik Jonsson:
“The cognitive map … is tailor made for us, showing only what we need to see. In contrast, a street map … shows mostly what we don’t need, and it takes quite a bit of practice in map reading to use it efficiently, to get past the wealth of useless information and find what one actually needs.”
“… if you have lived for a long time in a place and thus have a great deal of information stored in your spatial memory, the spatial system will automatically sort out just what you need at any given moment and present you with a cognitive map showing only where you are and the streets that will take you to your destination.”
“When we want to go to a faraway familiar place, we first see the direction to it in our cognitive map. We see it from where we are without any detail; it is just an awareness of direction and a distance. Later when we think about how to get there, we picture the route we have to follow. Usually we cannot visualize this route as one picture all the way from our starting point to our destination with sufficient detail to be useful; instead a cognitive route map is a series of pictures seen from points along the route and in the direction in which we are traveling. It is as if we, when we encoded the map of this route earlier, had a camera and snapped a picture every time something interesting appeared ahead. This means that a monotonous boring part is neglected on our map, whereas a stretch with many outstanding landmarks is well covered. … all the places along this route where we could possibly take the wrong road (like forks and intersections) are shown with enough detail to prevent mistakes.”
The book was published in 2002, before GPS units were as ubiquitous as they are today, and Jonsson mentions them only in passing.