Getting Lost Makes the Brain Go Haywire

In caves and labyrinths, humans’ cerebral navigation equipment is mostly useless. That can spark panic or free the mind.

A man looks up through a hole at the top of a cave.
Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

On the evening of December 18, 2004, in the hamlet of Madiran, in southwestern France, a man named Jean-Luc Josuat-Vergès wandered into the tunnels of an abandoned mushroom farm and got lost. Josuat-Vergès, who was 48 and employed as a caretaker at a local health center, had been depressed. Leaving his wife and 14-year-old son at home, he’d driven up into the hills with a bottle of whiskey and a pocketful of sleeping pills. After steering his Land Rover into the large entrance tunnel of the mushroom farm, he’d clicked on his flashlight and stumbled into the dark.

The tunnels, which had been originally dug out of the limestone hills as a chalk mine, comprised a five-mile-long labyrinth of blind corridors, twisting passages, and dead ends. Josuat-Vergès walked down one corridor, turned, then turned again. His flashlight battery slowly dimmed, then died; shortly after, as he tromped down one soggy corridor, his shoes were sucked off his feet and swallowed by the mud. Josuat-Vergès stumbled barefoot through the maze, groping in pitch-darkness, searching in vain for the exit.

On the afternoon of January 21, 2005, exactly 34 days after Josuat-Vergès first entered the tunnels, three local teenage boys decided to explore the abandoned mushroom farm. Just a few steps into the dark entrance corridor, they discovered the empty Land Rover, with the driver’s door still open. The boys called the police, who promptly dispatched a search team. After 90 minutes, in a chamber just 600 feet from the entrance, they found Josuat-Vergès. He was ghostly pale, thin as a skeleton, and had grown out a long, scraggly beard—but he was alive.

In the following days, as the story of Josuat-Vergès’s survival reached the media, he became known as le miraculé des ténèbres, “the miracle of darkness.”

This post is adapted from Hunt’s new book.

He regaled reporters with stories from his weeks in the mushroom farm, which seemed to rival even the grandest tales of stranded mountain climbers or shipwreck victims on desert islands. He ate clay and rotten wood, which he found by crawling on all fours and pawing at the mud; he drank water that dripped from the limestone ceiling, sometimes even sucking water from the walls. When he slept, he wrapped himself in old plastic tarpaulins left behind by the mushroom farmers. The part of Josuat-Vergès’s story that confounded reporters was that he had undergone radical and unexpected oscillations in his mood.

At times, as one might expect, he sank into profound despair; from a piece of rope he found, he even made a noose, “in case things got unbearable.” But during other moments, Josuat-Vergès explained, as he walked in the dark, he would slip into a kind of meditative calm, allowing his thoughts to soften and unspool, as he embraced the feelings of disorientation, letting himself float through the tunnels in a peaceful detachment. For hours at a time, as he wandered the maze, he said, “I sang to myself in the dark.”

Homo sapiens have always been marvelous navigators. We possess a powerful organ in the primitive region of our brain called the hippocampus, where, every time we take a step, a million neurons collect data on our location, compiling what neuroscientists call a “cognitive map,” which keeps us always oriented in space. This robust apparatus, which far outstrips our modern needs, is a hand-me-down from our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose very survival depended on powers of navigation. For hundreds of thousands of years, the failure to locate a watering hole or a safe rock shelter, or to follow herds of game and locate edible plants, would lead to certain death. Without the ability to pilot ourselves through unfamiliar landscapes, our species would not have survived—it is intrinsic to our humanity.

It is no surprise, then, that when we do lose our bearings, we are cast into a primal, bitter-in-the-mouth panic. Many of our most elementary fears—being separated from loved ones, uprooted from home, left out in the dark—are permutations of the dread of being lost. In our fairy tales, it is when the fair maiden becomes disoriented in the gloomy forest that she is accosted by the menacing troll or the hooded crone. Even hell is often depicted as a maze, going back to Milton, who made the comparison in Paradise Lost. The archetypal horror story of disorientation is the Greek myth of the Minotaur, who dwells in the winding folds of the Labyrinth of Knossos, a structure, as Ovid wrote,“built to disseminate uncertainty,” to leave the visitor “without a point of reference.”

So deep-seated is our dread of disorientation that becoming lost might trigger a kind of crack-up, where our very sense of self comes apart at the seams. “To a man totally unaccustomed to it,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his 1888 book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail, “the feeling of being lost in the wilderness seems to drive him into a state of panic terror that is frightful to behold, and that in the end renders him bereft of reason … If not found in three or four days, he is very apt to become crazy; he will then flee from the rescuers, and must be pursued and captured as if he were a wild animal.”

From our first step into subterranean darkness, our hippocampus, which so reliably guides us through the surface world, goes on the fritz, like a radio that has lost reception. We are cut off from the guidance of the stars, from the sun and the moon. Even the horizon vanishes—if not for gravity, we’d scarcely know up from down. All of the subtle cues that might orient us on the surface—cloud formations, plant-growth patterns, animal tracks, wind direction—disappear. Underground, we lose even the guide of our own shadow.

Down in a tight cave passage, or in the bounded folds of a catacomb, our field of view is blinkered, never reaching beyond the next twist or kink. As the cave historian William White observed, you never really see a whole cave—only one sliver at a time. When we navigate a landscape, wrote Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, we are reading our surroundings as a text, studying “the language of the earth itself”; the underground is a blank page, or a page scribbled with language we cannot decipher.

Not that it’s illegible to everyone. Certain subterranean-dwelling creatures are marvelously adapted to navigate through the dark. We all know the bat, who swoops through cave darkness using sonar and echolocation, but the champion subterranean navigator might be the blind mole rat: a pink, wrinkly, bucktoothed creature—picture a 90-year-old thumb with fangs—that spends its days in vast, mazelike underground nests. To navigate these dark passages, the blind mole rat periodically drums its head against the ground, then discerns the shape of the space according to the patterns of the returning vibrations. In its brain, the rat even has a tiny iron deposit, a built-in compass, which detects the Earth’s magnetic field. Natural selection has endowed us surface-dwellers with no such adaptive tricks. For us, a step underground is always a step into a navigational vacuum, a step in the wrong direction, or rather, no direction at all.

In any other landscape, when our inborn powers of navigation falter, we turn to a map, which anchors us in space, and keeps us on course. In the underground world, though, mapping has always been a uniquely perplexing endeavor. Long after explorers and cartographers were charting every other terrestrial landscape on the planet, casting clean latitudinal and longitudinal grid lines over remote archipelagos and mountain ranges, the spaces directly beneath our feet remained elusive.

The earliest known map of a cave was drawn in 1665 of Baumann’s Cave, a large cavern in the densely forested Harz region of Germany. To judge from the map’s rudimentary lines, the cartographer, a man identified as Von Alvensleben, does not appear to have been an expert mapmaker, or even a capable one, but the map’s shortcomings are nonetheless remarkable. The explorer has failed to convey any sense of perspective, or depth, or any other dimension—he has failed to communicate even that the space is underground. Von Alvensleben was attempting to map a space he was neurologically ill-equipped to see, a space literally beyond his perception. It came to the point of an epistemological folly, like trying to paint a portrait of a ghost, or catch a cloud in a net.

The map of Baumann’s Cave was the first in a long lineage of curious failures of subterranean cartography. For generations, explorers all over Europe—teams of dauntless, quixotic men—plumbed caves with the intent to measure the underground world, to orient themselves in the dark, only to fail, often in bewildering ways. On fraying ropes, they lowered themselves deep underground, where they wandered for hours, clambering over hulking boulders and swimming down subterranean rivers. They guided their way with wax candles, which gave off feeble coronas of light that extended no more than a few feet in any direction. Surveyors often resorted to absurd measures, such as an Austrian explorer named Joseph Nagel who, in an attempt to illuminate a cave chamber, tied a rig of candles to the feet of two geese, then threw pebbles at the geese, hoping that they would take flight and cast their light through the dark. (It didn’t work: The geese wobbled lamely and tumbled earthward.)

Even when they did manage to make measurements, meanwhile, the explorers’ spatial perception was so warped by the caprices of the environment that their findings would be wildly off the mark. On a 1672 expedition in Slovenia, for example, an explorer plumbed a winding cave passage and recorded its length at six miles, when in reality, he had traveled only a quarter mile. The surveys and maps that emerged from these early expeditions were often so divergent from reality that some caves are now effectively unrecognizable. Today, we can only read the old reports as small, mysterious poems about imaginary places.

The most renowned of the early cave mappers was a late-19th-century Frenchman named Edouard-Alfred Martel, who would become known as the father of speleology. Over the course of a five-decade career, Martel led some 1,500 expeditions in 15 countries around the world, hundreds of them into virgin caves. A lawyer by trade, he spent his early years rappelling underground in shirtsleeves and a bowler cap, before finally designing a kit of specialized caving equipment. In addition to a collapsible canvas boat dubbed Alligator, and a chunky field telephone to communicate with porters on the surface, he devised a battery of subterranean survey instruments. For example, he invented a contraption to measure a cave floor-to-ceiling, in which he attached an alcohol-soaked sponge to a paper balloon on a long string, then set a match to the sponge, causing the balloon to rise to the roof as he unspooled the string. Martel’s maps might have been more precise than those of his predecessors, but compared with the maps drafted by explorers of any other landscape at the time, they were hardly more than sketches. Martel was celebrated for his cartographic innovation of dividing a cave into distinct cross sections (or coupes), which would become the standard in cave mapping.

Martel and his fellow explorers, who spent years trying and failing to orient themselves in the subterranean world, were disciples to lostness. No one knew the sensory experience of disorientation so intimately: For hours on end, they’d float through the dark, caught in a prolonged state of vertigo, as they tried and failed to anchor themselves. According to all evolutionary logic, where our minds are wired to avoid disorientation at all costs, where lostness activates our most primitive fear receptors, they must have experienced a deep anxiety: “the panic terror that is frightful to behold,” as Roosevelt described it. And yet, they went down again and again.

They derived a form of power, it seems, from losing themselves in the dark.

Lostness has always been an enigmatic and many-sided state, always filled with unexpected potencies. Across history, all varieties of artists, philosophers, and scientists have celebrated disorientation as an engine of discovery and creativity, both in the sense of straying from a physical path, and in swerving away from the familiar, turning in to the unknown.

To make great art, John Keats said, one must embrace disorientation and turn away from certainty. He called this “negative capability”: “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Thoreau, too, described lostness as a door into understanding your place in the world: “Not till we are completely lost, or turned round,” he wrote, “do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature … 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.” All of which makes sense, neurologically speaking: When we are lost, after all, our brain is at its most open and absorbent.

In a state of disorientation, the neurons in our hippocampus are frantically sponging up every sound, smell, and sight in our environment, scrambling for any strand of data that will help us regain our bearings. Even as we feel anxious, our imagination becomes prodigiously active, conjuring ornate images from our environment. When we take a wrong turn in the woods and lose sight of the trail, our mind perceives every twig snap or leaf rustle as the arrival of an ornery black bear, or a pack of warthogs, or a convict on the lam. Just as our pupils dilate on a dark night to receive more photons of light, when we are lost, our mind opens up to the world more fully.

In the late 1990s, a team of neuroscientists tracked the power of disorientation down into the physical trappings of our brain. In a lab at the University of Pennsylvania, they conducted experiments on Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns, where they scanned their brains during meditation and prayer. Immediately, they noticed a pattern: In a state of prayer, a small region near the front of the brain, the posterior superior parietal lobe, showed a decline in activity. This particular lobe, as it turns out, works closely with the hippocampus in the processes of cognitive navigation. As far as the researchers could see, the experience of spiritual communion was intrinsically accompanied by the dulling of spatial perception.

It should be no surprise, then, that anthropologists have tracked a kind of cult of lostness running through the world’s religious rituals. The British scholar Victor Turner observed that any sacred rite of initiation proceeds in three stages: separation (the initiate departs from society, leaving behind his or her former social status), transition (the initiate is in the midst of passing from one status to the next), and incorporation (the initiate returns to society with a new status). The pivot occurs in the middle phase, which Turner called the stage of liminality, from the Latin limin, meaning “threshold.” In the liminal state, “the very structure of society is temporarily suspended”: We float in ambiguity and evanescence, where we are neither one identity nor the other, no-longer-but-not-yet. The ultimate catalyst of liminality, Turner writes, is disorientation.

Among many rituals of lostness practiced by cultures all over the world, a particularly poignant one is observed by the Pit River Native Americans in California, where, from time to time, a member of the tribe will “go wandering.” According to the anthropologist Jaime de Angulo, “the Wanderer, man or woman, shuns camps and villages, remains in wild, lonely places, on the tops of mountains, in the bottoms of canyons.” In the act of surrendering to disorientation, the tribe says, the wanderer has “lost his shadow.” It is a mercurial endeavor to go wandering, a practice that might result in irredeemable despair, or even madness, but might also bring great power, as the wanderer emerges from lostness with a holy calling, before returning to the tribe as a shaman.

The most ubiquitous vehicle of ritual lostness—the most basic embodiment of disorientation—is the labyrinth. We find labyrinthine structures in every corner of the world, from the hills of Wales to the islands of eastern Russia to the fields of southern India. A labyrinth operates as a kind of liminality machine, a structure devised to engineer a concentrated experience of disorientation. As we enter the winding stone passages, and turn our focus to the bounded path, we disconnect from external geography, slipping into a kind of spatial hypnosis, where all reference points fall away. In this state, we are primed to undergo a transformation, where we pass between social statuses, phases of life, or psychic states. In Afghanistan, for example, labyrinths were the center of marriage rituals, where a couple would solidify their union in the act of navigating the twisting stone path. Labyrinthine structures in Southeast Asia, meanwhile, were used as meditation tools, where visitors would walk slowly along the trail to deepen their inward focus. Indeed, the archetypal tale of Theseus slaying the Minotaur in Crete is ultimately a story of transformation: Theseus enters the labyrinth as a boy and emerges a man and a hero.

In their modern incarnation, most labyrinths are two-dimensional, their passages bordered by low stacks of stones or mosaic patterns tiled into a floor. But as we trace the lineage of the labyrinth deeper into the past, searching for earlier and earlier incarnations, we find the walls slowly rising, the passageways becoming darker and more immersive—indeed, the very first labyrinths were almost always underground structures. The ancient Egyptians, according to Herodotus, built a vast subterranean labyrinth, as did the Etruscans in northern Italy. The pre-Incan culture of Chavín constructed an enormous underground labyrinth high in the Peruvian Andes, where they conducted sacred rituals in dark, sinuous tunnels; the ancient Maya did the same in a dark labyrinth in the city of Oxkintok in the Yucatán. In the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, meanwhile, the Tohono O’odham tribe have long worshipped a god called I’itoi, also known as the Man in the Maze, who dwells at the heart of a labyrinth. The opening of I’itoi’s labyrinth, a design frequently woven into the tribe’s traditional baskets, is said to be the mouth of a cave.

When Jean-Luc Josuat-Vergès entered the tunnels of the mushroom farm in Madiran with his whiskey and sleeping pills, he’d had notions of suicide. “I was low, having very dark thoughts,” was the way he put it. After he emerged from the maze, he found that he’d regained his purchase on life. He rejoined his family, where he found himself happier and more at ease. He began attending night school, earned a second degree, and found a better job in a town up the road. When asked about his transformation, he told reporters that while he was in the dark, “a survival instinct” had kicked in, renewing his will to live. In his darkest moment, when he desperately needed to transform his life, he traveled into the dark, surrendered to disorientation, preparing himself to emerge anew.

This post is adapted from Hunt’s new book, Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet.