Read: How digital maps have changed what it means to be lost
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.