Recalculating: The Mind and the Map

Not everyone's brains have the same sense of direction, even with the help of GPS.

Elizabeth Preston

The mere mention of Boston inspires dread in my family. On one infamous trip from our home in upstate New York to a Boston wedding, we were done in by a single step in the directions sent by family friends. My mom was dictating from a piece of paper while my dad drove through the dense city traffic. “You’ll be making a big S,” she read.

Everyone was stumped. How big an S? Was that it just now? Bigger? The streets kept curving and carrying us helplessly along, cars pressing in on all sides. We stopped and flagged down a stranger, who raised his arm and pointed behind him toward our next landmark: It was tantalizingly visible but impossible to reach on the one-way streets. I don’t know how we eventually made it to the wedding, but we would all remember the city as a hostile, unnavigable place. My parents swear they saw a vehicle in front of us veer into a parked car for no reason and keep driving.

That was in the dark ages of navigation. The following years brought in-vehicle, then in-pocket GPS. After college I lived in Chicago, a city whose streets are a glorious grid. I was never lost. Not only that, but when I was outdoors I always knew which cardinal direction I was facing. I could at any time have easily dropped myself onto a city map, like the yellow Google Street View person you pick up by her arm.

Then I moved with my husband to Boston, land of big S’s and vengeful car-smashers. But between Google, Garmin, and smartphones, I figured everything would be fine this time.

If this were a movie, here’s where something by the Dropkick Murphys would play over a montage of me standing at intersections, staring down at my phone, and then looking around in confusion. (There are obvious reasons why Boston lacks the ruler-straight streets of my former hometown: It’s old; it never burned to the ground and had to be rebuilt from scratch; it’s hilly. But the area’s casual attitude toward street signage is harder to explain.)

At those perplexing corners I sometimes wish I were a pigeon or a sea turtle, or even a dung beetle—any of the animals that are so much better than humans at finding their way. Humans aren’t totally hopeless though, according to a strange 1980 study that asserted humans have some homing ability too. The researcher blindfolded subjects, put them in a bus, and drove them on a “tortuous route” around England. Once released but still blindfolded, the subjects were asked which direction they’d come from. To their own surprise, they were somewhat successful. The author claimed that strapping a magnet to people’s heads canceled out this ability. But compared to our more wild companions who migrate for thousands of miles or remember the exact place they were born, we’re pretty directionally challenged.

After 14 months in Boston, I can find my way around some neighborhoods without trouble. Taking unplanned side streets is risky, though, because roads here have a tendency to bend and drop you someplace you’re not expecting. I never take a new running route without first memorizing the turns on a map. Ever since my husband left for a three-mile run and came back an hour later having visited a new town, we’re both cautious.

Even GPS doesn’t always help. If you’re driving, it may tell you to take your next left without mentioning that the road you’re on first turns 90 degrees right. If you’re walking, Google Maps will blithely send you down “streets” that are really alleyways or sidewalks bisecting college quads. Downtown, phones sometimes struggle to reach the GPS satellites, leaving you on your own. Street names are recycled in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and the other small cities packed around here—so if you don’t double-check the address your device suggests, you might end up like the Thai delivery guy who took our food to the wrong city.

Unlike in Chicago, I can no longer easily place myself on a city map. I almost never know what direction I’m facing. My new mental map is, in its most vivid form, a collection of remembered mistakes. Its landmarks are places I was when I meant to be someplace else: Here are the train tracks where I realized I was walking the wrong way to an interview. Here’s where I took an unexpected tour of the Harvard Divinity School campus. Here’s the restaurant that didn’t appear until a friend and I had walked across the square from every direction, as if it needed a magic spell to materialize. (The Boston area is full of “squares,” seemingly none of which are square in the geometric sense.)

At best, my mental map of my new home is a few loose archipelagos of landmarks in a sea of question marks. Researchers of cognitive maps would say that mine isn’t very sophisticated. Gary Burnett, who studies interfaces between humans and in-car computers at the University of Nottingham, wrote in 2005 that landmarks are the just first step of building a map in your mind. Routes are the next level of understanding, and above that is “survey” knowledge—a map-like comprehension of the whole area.

Toru Ishikawa, who studies human spatial cognition and behavior at the University of Tokyo, described a similar progression in a 2013 paper. Understanding landmarks and routes leads you first to “egocentric” knowledge, the first-person view at street level. After that comes “allocentric” knowledge (“allo-” for “other”), which is more like an aerial view. From up here you can see the big S. Ishikawa’s research has shown that people with a better sense of direction use fewer landmarks to build their internal maps. They’re also quicker at turning egocentric knowledge into allocentric.

Good sense of direction or not, when you and I do manage to orient ourselves, we can thank our place cells. These neurons, buried deep in the brain’s hippocampus, tell us where we are. Each cell only fires when we’re at a specific place. Nearby are another group of neurons called grid cells, which help us locate ourselves on a set of coordinates. Working together, place and grid cells are what allow people to find their way around. The scientists who discovered place cells and grid cells in rat brains also found their way to the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

As these researchers discovered, our brains have amazing powers of cartography built in. But we may be interfering when we use GPS or other navigational aids. Burnett and other researchers found that drivers using GPS drew less accurate maps of an area afterward than people who used an old-fashioned roadmap. Ishikawa has seen the same effect in people traveling on foot. A study in Los Angeles found that people who traveled passively—on transit, or as passengers in cars—had worse spatial knowledge of the city than those who walked or drove themselves. Even using a you-are-here map with a marked route (like an analog GPS) left people with worse knowledge of an area than using an unmarked map.

Negin Minaei researches sustainable urbanism at the United Kingdom’s Royal Agriculture University. She studied the question of how GPS affects mental mapping by asking Londoners to sketch a map of their city. Self-reported GPS users drew maps that were no worse than other people’s. But they drew their maps on a smaller scale, maybe showing only the subject’s neighborhood. People who said they didn’t use GPS were more likely to draw a map of the whole city—in other words, a more allocentric map.

The subjects in Minaei’s study had all lived in London for at least two years, but to her surprise some of them couldn’t draw the city at all. “When I asked them to draw a map they panicked,” she told me. “Some said they did not have anything in their minds to draw.” Minaei is particularly interested in these mysterious mapless people. How can they live in a place for years and not even start to understand how that place is laid out?

Minaei herself prefers using printed maps to GPS. “I remember once in London, my phone navigator was walking me through the same area over and over for no apparent reason,” she says. When she glanced up from her screen and saw tourists taking the same useless route, she gave up on the phone. “By looking around trying to spot a landmark, then by listening to the sounds of the birds from the river, I could find my way out of that cycle of streets towards the River Thames,” she says. “After that I’ve never trusted the GPS and navigation apps.”

The rest of us might do ourselves a favor by trusting more of our navigation to our own eyes and legs. I’m now trying to think of all my wrong turns as material for the part of my brain that badly wants to build me a map, to locate me in the world. If it takes a little longer to get where I’m going, at least I’ll have taken the scenic route and heard the birdsong.

This piece inspired us to test out our readers memories of their own home towns. You can see how good they were at drawing their home towns here.