I wrote the series, years ago, mostly in 2011, and refer to it from time-to-time.  I still think about it a lot and find the subject fascinating. One of the early entries is a good introduction:

The Tourist asked: Old-timer, can you tell me how to get to St. Johnsbury from here?

Eben Jenkins thought a bit, raised one hand and started to gesture up the Mountain Road. Thinking better of it, he stroked his chin and then pointed back down the River Road and almost spoke. He caught himself, looked the other way – up the River Road, and his eyes took on a faraway look. “Young fellah, you can’t get theah from heah.”

Some overview, before putting you on to some of the research.

Wayfinding is a subtopic under spatial memory. Though wayfinding can involve different scales of routes to follow, these are not vastly different scales. They are human sized, and involve moving a human-sized body, or objects only slightly smaller or larger. This is what human beings have navigated in for millennia. We now scale up to spatial relationships a million X larger or million X smaller, but these are recently learned. Like the Fahrenheit Scale that works best in the nice, human-living numbers 0-100, wayfinding is the understanding of movement from room-to-room, of walks in The Shire. Longer journeys of even ten miles begin to require a greater level of abstraction. This is landmark navigation, we have a hundred brain mechanisms we are unaware of helping us out, it is what we are built for, and it is far superior on the human scale. Even switching between scales at this level is not that hard.

Longer journeys, especially those which have to navigate around something large, such as a lake or a mountain range, push our brains to do either of two difficult things: either we must create a long chain of directions or we must develop a set of abstracts which allow us to store the navigational information in shorter, but more complex form. Some humans do one, some the other. Both require working memory and set-shifting, but the former is emphasised in landmark, or egocentric navigation, while the latter is more in play in cardinal/overhead or allocentric navigation. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortext you’ve heard of – those are key to egocentric navigation. Other cortical areas that you haven’t heard much about* are key to the allocentric navigation. Allocentric seems to be later, more advanced, dependent on parts of the brain other than the most basic. That is a ridiculous oversimplification, but I think it holds.

In either event, memory storage and retrieval have to be in fine working order.

Interesting tidbit #1. Some tests of wayfinding abilities on the pencil and paper scale give a very accurate picture of how you will do walking around indoors or in a small neighborhood. Others tests give an accurate picture of how you will do on journey-length navigation of miles. For the in-between scales – from the large mall to the town – the results are ambiguous. Both types of test will stretch so far and no farther in the individual, whether scaling up or scaling down – and the stretch is a bit different for each person. The tests don’t tell us much, because they begin to measure two separate things. People switch sets of scale and of method at the margins, and the tests measure something else: general intelligence, which is related to our ability to switch sets.

Interesting tidbit #2. OTOH, they tell us a lot about people who can’t navigate at all. An experiment by Toru Ishikawa (and that name will show up again in later posts) showed that some students learned a route right away, others learned it gradually, and some never learned it, even after ten repetitions.

Interesting tidbit #3. (Also Ishikawa) Using a GPS interfered with people’s ability to learn a route. All my map-loving readers are secretly rejoicing, but there could be problems with this study. The participants may have not been that familiar with using GPS, and relatedly, switching scales on the small screen may have thrown them off. (This was a walking test.)

There is a further possibility suggested by this. Those who rely on abstract, allocentric, overhead map navigation may not develop their landmark, egocentric navigation as fully as those who rely on it entirely. The prideful allocentrics who can navigate to Spain and back may forever be less good at getting about town than the egocentrics. The good egocentrics, that is. Obviously, everyone is better than those who haven’t got a clue. Of which there are many.

Tangential humorous story about a guy who didn’t have a clue. A family in a car with out-of-state plates rolled down the window. The husband, driving, asked where the cliff with all the faces were. I started to tell him where the Old Man of the Mountain was – about two hours away, but he cut me off. “No, I don’t mean the Old Man of the Mountain! I mean the place where they have the faces on the cliff!” I noticed that his wife was rolling her eyes, the children in the back looking very quiet. This discussion had apparently been going on awhile before they had gotten to me.

Inside, I’m thinking Dear God, don’t let him be talking about Mount Rushmore. I don’t think I can break it to a guy this angry. Aloud, I said gently, “Well, there are a few others up in that direction, there’s Indian Cliff, it’s got a staircase observatory…”

“No, these weren’t Indians.”

“Well, we don’t have anything as fancy or impressive as Mount Rushmore here in NH that I can think of…” I said tentatively.

“No, it’s not goddam Mount Rushmore either! It’s a cliff with faces on it!”

“Sorry, I’ve lived here most of my life, but I’m not sure what you’re describing.”

He rolled up the window and drove off. He waited at the stop sign a long while – I think they were arguing still – then took an emphatic left and sped through town. Left was not the direction for either Franconia or South Dakota. But you knew that.

*entorhinal and posterior parietal

The whole wayfinding series, including my most-searched post, about Stonehenge. Yes, it will take a while, and you might want to divide it up over several days.  But i think you will find it rewarding.

Update: A recent paper on spatial navigation.
More Wayfinding 2013 
Note on Wayfinding 2012
Spatial Memory 

17 thoughts on “Wayfinding”

  1. AVI…”Using a GPS interfered with people’s ability to learn a route”

    You might be interested in this post…the airline captain’s video about the Children of Magenta is not to be missed.

  2. How does travel speed (rather than distance) influence shifting between or developing skill in various methods of wayfinding?

    On a side note, I find that my wayfinding can be subconscious and if I’m not careful I can find myself well on the way to a place I wasn’t actually intending to go. Of course, sometimes I can’t recall why I wanted to go to the original destination so it doesn’t matter that much anyway.


  3. I had an interesting conversation with an applicant to the military last month. He had done a couple of tours in the Navy as a bridge crew, what the Navy calls a Quartermaster.

    The Army term has a different meaning.

    We talked about navigation and he was interested in the fact that I had sailed to Hawaii using only a sextant. He told me that, in his first tour, they still had paper charts but since then there were no paper charts,

    We talked about the peculiarities of Loran C , which is now gone I believe. Loran C was turned off in 2010.

    I understand the Navy is resuming the teaching of sextant use, but they have a way to go to restore competent seamanship.

    For example, the Navy kept secret for a year the fact that the OOD and other officers on the bridge of the USS Fitzgerald were female and two of them were not speaking due to some personal dispute.

    The OOD was named Sarah, and the Tactical Action Officer was named Natalie, and they weren’t speaking to each other!!! The Tactical Action Officer would normally be in near constant communication with the OOD, but there is no record of any communication between them that entire shift!

    Seven crewmen died.

  4. LORAN is gone…I wrote about the termination here…and so is the other low-frequency long-range navigation system, OMEGA. The FAA is deemphasizing ground-based navigational aids in favor of GPS, on both cost and flexibility grounds. And even railroads are becoming major GPS users, with certain implementations of the soon-to-be-required Positive Train Control system.

    We are getting awfully GPS-dependent.

  5. Omega was worthless as far as I tried to use it.

    Loran C was good along the coast down into Mexico where it began to fade.

    It was not useful going to Hawaii as the reception was almost nil coming from the east side. I understood it was better on the west side.

    We used it sailing around the local islands. Loran A was useless.

    When I went to Hawaii, the only satellite system was NAVSAT, which required continuous monitoring of satellites which were not geostationary,

    The satellites (known as OSCAR or NOVA satellites) used in the system were placed in low polar orbits, at an altitude of about 600 nautical miles (1,100 km), with an orbital period of about 106 minutes. A constellation of five satellites was required to provide reasonable global coverage. While the system was operational, at least ten satellites – one spare for each satellite in the basic constellation – were usually kept in orbit. Note that these OSCAR satellites were not the same as the OSCAR series of satellites that were devoted to use by amateur radio operators to use in satellite communications.

    You had to track the satellites continuously which took about 2 amps of power all the time. A few big sailboats could do that but not the small ones like mine. We did not have the battery power.

    GPS is easy now but I expect the Chinese have plans for that system should war ever intervene.

  6. Oh well. I have never been lost. I wander my back country all the time and I always know about where I am. The only errors I have ever encountered were misjudgements of distance. I understand its somewhat unusual but its been like this all my life.

    I use GPS rarely, its my pocket, but I don’t need it for my location. I do use it to plot a path in unknown territory sometimes, but that’s about it.

    I always know direction. I know which way to go and that appears to be bulletproof. I suspect my inertial dead reckoning is above average but its the sun that always gives away direction. I know where I am. I know about what time it is. I can tell where the sun is, even on quite an overcast day. That’s all you really need.

    I would like to be dropped somewhere, and figure out where I am and the way out, but I doubt anyone can make a buck off a 71 year old man figuring out where he is, and I don’t have the money. It would make a good show though. ;)

    Oh yeah, my website is almost completely devoted, to pictures taken on my travels.

  7. We are all facing death. ;) As my little website illustrates I do get around in the back country. Although that may be going nowhere, in your book, this not about a successful economic career. Its about not getting lost.

    I do enjoy pure spite though. ;)

  8. An aspect of wayfinding is related to effort to cross three-dimensional terrain.

    You may have an ideal route, one that is shortest distance on the map and in reality. However, huge ‘effing comma in bold, said route may be inherently insane due to the terrain you have to cross in order to get from “A” to “B”.

    One runs into this a lot with folks in the military who grew up on mostly flat land, and then suddenly find themselves amongst actual, y’know… Terrain. Rule of thumb: If you’re looking at the topographical map, and there are whole lot of those little lines they use to indicate changes in elevation along your chosen route…? That’s gonna take a lot more effort than the route which crosses significantly fewer, even if that second alternative is twice or three times as long.

    We went to Missouri from Washington state, to attend a well-known and arduous training course. We had a Brazilian Army exchange officer, who’d spent most of his career in the Amazon. Dude did not know mountains, hills, or anything else. Day he was in charge, during patrolling? His choice of routes, which were all straight-line “shortest distance”, put six of us into the hospital for heat exhaustion injuries. He was carrying a rifle, we were carrying radios and machine guns–And, he simply couldn’t “get” that his routefinding was what did the trick. After all, it was easy for him to cross all those terrain lines, carrying a light ruck and a rifle…

    Wayfinding and routefinding are arts; you have to know the terrain and the flora/fauna. You don’t follow creekbeds in the southeast, unless you like to meet unexpected and unfamiliar animals like the alligator and cottonmouth. In that terrain, you stick to the freaking hilltops and ridges, just below the military crest. Likewise, in the desert southwest, you don’t walk or camp in the wadis and canyons unless you have instant and easy egress in case of flash flooding. Safety is something you have to take into consideration, and prioritize accordingly. There’s nothing quite like watching several military trucks parked in a wadi under a clear blue sky get washed away, with all your gear and sensitive items, from a cloudburst that happened ten miles away…

  9. His choice of routes, which were all straight-line “shortest distance”, put six of us into the hospital for heat exhaustion injuries

    Australia has had some trouble with Japanese tourists using GPS, and lacking common sense.

    If your GPS told you to drive off a bridge, would you do it? What about if it told you to drive into the ocean?

    Around 11:00 a.m. on March 15, three Japanese tourists demonstrated that their answer was a resounding yes. Yuzu Noda, 21, Tomonari Saeki, 22, and Keita Osada, 21, were vacationing in Australia when they decided to take a day trip to North Stradbroke Island, the Brisbane Times reported. The three Tokyo students trustingly followed their GPS system’s instructions to drive directly through Moreton Bay to the island, forgoing real roads.

    More than as simple terrain problem.

  10. Copied from my comments at AVI, for the most part.

    A) When I was 5 and my sister was 7, we spent the better part of a summer at a grandparents’ house in a small town. While at 5 years of age, I could walk all around the town grid and find my way back home, my sister at 7 years old would get lost. No accident that by first grade I was walking through the woods by myself to the post office, a path I discovered on my own.

    B)Several years ago I visited an old friend in my hometown. He lives at the end of a paved back road which extends for about a mile off a state highway.

    I drove, and couldn’t find it. I called his house, and found out I hadn’t gone far enough.

    What had thrown me off was that about a quarter mile before his house was a cross road paved with loose white cobblestones. That had thrown me off because all my life that had been a plain old dirt road.

    The white cobblestones didn’t fit my memory of what the road should look like, so I decided I had made a wrong turn- which I hadn’t.

    C) In my New England childhood I had no trouble navigating in the dark in the woods around my home, because I knew them well by daylight.

    I was so familiar with the curves and hills on the roads around my home, I sometimes thought I could drive them with my eyes shut. I was never foolhardy enough to test this out. Some things are better left unknown.

    D) Newcomers to New England are often thrown off by being told to “go straight” on a road. This means to stay on the road, to not turn onto another road. But as there can be 3 curves in a half mile, the direction to “go straight” on a road that is anything but straight can be confusing.

    E) I have often driven the 2000 miles from Texas to New England without a road map. I know where to go, so I go.

    F) I once climbed a volcanic mountain of about 15,000′ in Colombia. I went up with a group from the ~10,000′ base camp, but on the way down, the fog resulted in my losing connections with the group. Fortunately, I found my way back to camp, but if I had taken the wrong direction, the camp was about the only building on the mountain, and the mountain was in wilderness.

  11. On my first visit to Ireland, we stopped by an old man to ask directions.

    He pointed down the street in the direction we had come from.

    He said, “Do you see that sign post there?”

    Naturally, I said yes. He answered< "Well you can;\'t see it from here but it is there nonetheless."

    I had now been established as a liar.

    He then went on, "Go down that road to the ,left and you can't miss it."

    We finally found it.

  12. I had always thought I had an above-average sense of direction until I started walking in the woods behind my neighborhood, which extend into New Boston. There are trails, but no maps. I kept arriving in unexpected places – at an intersection I knew from another direction but thought I was nowhere near, for example. I found I got turned 30-60-90 degrees easily. Distance I was moderately good at. Things were somewhat better when the sun was visible through the clouds and trees, even when I wasn’t consciously thinking “I must be headed SW at this point.”

    I eventually concluded that I actually have a poor sense of direction. What has (usually) prevented me from getting lost all these years is a fascination with maps, which I would often dreamily contemplate days or weeks before taking a trip. I also find that I am utterly dependent on North being at the top of the map. I can memorise those and redraw places even weeks later, but anything more than 45 degrees off and I am completely thrown.

    For those who didn’t click through the entire series (the fools!), I draw your attention to Inner Navigation II, which describes a problem which is more common in people who have good senses of direction. The background: A Swedish author described his first arrival by train into Vienna (or Berlin?) as a student. The track made a long curved turn before entering the city (at night), so that he arrived 90 degrees off from what he thought was the case. His initial cognitive map was 90 degrees off, but it imprinted so strongly and immediately that he never got it right in his head again, even though he lived there for more than a year. I had similar experiences in Williamsburg and London. A fascinating quirk of navigation memory. And an opportunity to look up Williamsburg on the map and see the oddity of its layout that I describe. Fun stuff.

  13. I got to see Stonehenge in person on our cruise earlier this year, and my first impression was how much more compact it was than I expected based on looking at overhead maps.

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