You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

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9780385528061: You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

Book Description
A fascinating exploration of human navigation, both feat and foible, in the age of GPS and GoogleEarth.

We live in a world crowded by street signs and arrows. With the click of a computer mouse we can find exact directions to just about anywhere on earth, and with a handheld GPS we can find our precise latitude and longitude, even in the remotest of places. But despite all our advancements, we still get lost in the mall, can’t follow directions to a friend’s house and, on camping expeditions, take wrong turns that can mean the difference between life and death.

Many other species, however, have an innate sense of direction. Ants display surprisingly sophisticated behavior, traveling great distances without wasting a step. Monarch butterflies and migrating songbirds pilot even greater expanses, thousands of kilometers in some instances, to targets that they might never even have seen before. A homing pigeon can be driven halfway across a continent in a lightproof box and then, on release, find its way—unerringly—back to its loft. What is truly amazing, though, is that humans, the only animal that has come close to understanding how some of these magnificent navigational feats are performed, are rendered helpless by dense bush or even an unexpected turn in a maze of cubicles.

In You Are Here, psychologist Colin Ellard explains how, over centuries of innovation, we have lost our instinctive ability to find our way, as we traverse vast distances in mere hours in luxurious comfort. Some cultures, such as the Inuit, retain the ability to navigate huge expanses of seemingly empty space, as their survival depends on it, but the rest of us have been so conditioned by our built-up world that we don’t really know how to get from point A to point B.

Drawing on his exhaustive research, Ellard illuminates this disconnect from our world with great clarity and explains what it means, not just for our forays into the wilderness but for how we construct our cities, our workplaces, and even our homes and virtual worlds. Architects and city planners, he suggests, need to consider human behavior when designing human environments, and we all need to recognize that we are part of, not isolated from, the space around us.

Colin Ellard on You Ar

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Review:

Tom Vanderbilt Reviews You Are Here

Tom Vanderbilt writes on design, technology, science, and culture for many publications, including Wired, Slate, The London Review of Books, Gourmet, The Wall Street Journal, Men’s Vogue, Artforum, The Wilson Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Cabinet, Metropolis, and Popular Science. He is the author of Survival City and The Sneaker Book. His most recent book is the New York Times bestseller Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Read his guest review of You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall:

I was recently reading a New York Times account of a woman, an accomplished athlete, who after a surgery resulting in the removal of part of her right temporal lobe, lost the ability to remember, on her long runs, exactly where she had been. Gone too was the ability to read maps. Recalling where she had parked became an impossibility. A few weeks before, watching Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World, I was struck by a scene in which a group of new arrivals at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station take a course in navigation during a white-out. These conditions were simulated by putting buckets on the researchers’ heads, and having them walk just a short distance from their starting point. The group veered wildly off course.

Finding our way in the world is something we tend to take for granted, and while most of us will never experience the extremes described above, the maps we generate in our heads may not always match up with the world that’s out there. For example, did you know that Seattle is farther north than Montreal, that Reno is farther west than Los Angeles, and that Chicago lines up with the west coast of South America? This is just one of the many revelatory episodes of dislocation presented by psychologist Colin Ellard in his book You Are Here. "Though most of us can find our way home every night," Ellard writes, "we often have little cartographic insight into how we got there."

Ellard ranges with admirable width and breadth across the field of human and animal "spatial intelligence," from questions of how wasps can return to their nests using natural landmarks; to why we may not often know the true shortest distance between two points in a city; to how we inhabit and move through such spaces as homes, offices, or casinos; to how our navigation of online environments parallels its real-world equivalent. You Are Here provides a colorful, well-charted atlas of our subjective mental maps--visual stories that we tell ourselves--and an impassioned argument for finding our true place in the world we inhabit.--Tom Vanderbilt

(Photo © Kate Burton)

Colin Ellard on You Are Here

Top 10 Ways to Avoid Getting Lost
  1. Take the time to smell (and look at) the roses. The difference between expert way-finders and the rest of us probably has much to do with being able to pay attention to details. Take the time to soak in the sights, sounds, and smells so that they’ll be familiar on the return. Try not to walk (or drive) on auto-pilot.
  2. Remembrance of things passed. Insects use a strategy called the "look-back." It’s exactly what it sounds like. From time to time, turn around and look behind you so that you’ll be better able to recognize a scene on the way back.
  3. Don’t get lost in time. We are as bad at keeping track of when as we are at keeping track of where. When travelling through unfamiliar territory, check the time frequently so you’ll know how long a trip has taken. Then you can estimate how long it will take to return.
  4. Every route’s a story. Ancient way-finders connected places with stories to help them remember routes. When walking, try to stitch the things you see into a tall tale that you’ll remember later.
  5. Embrace your inner geek. Remember that technology is your friend. If you’re out in nature and you’re carrying a compass, check it frequently before you get lost so that you’ll have some idea of your route. If you’re using a GPS, make sure you know how it works before you need it (and make sure the batteries work!).
  6. Head for home. When visiting somewhere new, assign one major area or street as the home base and return to it frequently during your explorations. This will help you build a better mental map quickly.
  7. Stop, drop, and wait. If you become seriously lost in wilderness, stop moving! Search and rescue teams always begin their “hasty search” from your last known location, and the less you move away from it, the faster you’ll be found.
  8. Picture yourself found. If you have a digital camera, take lots of pictures of your route. In a pinch, you will be able to refer to your pictures to remind you of sights along your route, but even without doing so, taking pictures forces you to pay attention to where you are.
  9. Don’t lose your cool. Remember that we all become lost from time to time. Getting angry with your partner or yourself will only distract you and make it more difficult to find your way.
  10. Stay on track. Most people become lost in natural spaces because they leave a marked trail. Never overestimate your abilities to find your way back.
Did You Know?
  • According to a survey of 12,500 people in 13 countries conducted by Nokia, 93% of people reported becoming lost on a regular basis. 30% blamed their partners. Almost half of respondents admitted to giving wrong directions on purpose. 11% of Russians have asked for directions even when they weren’t lost, just to flirt.
  • One out of ten people have missed a job interview, an important business meeting, or a flight because they lost their way.
  • In 2007, a Thai woman was reunited with her family after having been lost for 25 years after getting on the wrong bus for a shopping trip to Malaysia.
  • Men may not ask for directions because they have greater difficulty following them. Women navigate using routes and men navigate using compass orientation.
  • A poorly designed you-are-here map can actually make it more difficult for you to find your way than no map at all.
  • The top five cities in which residents report becoming lost are (in order) London, Paris, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Beijing.
  • A desert ant can wander in a random path equal in human distances to the length of a marathon and then return in a straight line to within about 2 inches of its nest, even if it can’t see the nest.
  • Food-storing birds can remember the hidden locations of about 80,000 food stashes in a single fall season.
  • The wood mouse actually makes its own direction signs by leaving twigs at important decision points on its travels.
  • Italian homing pigeons navigate using mental maps which include major highways and railroad tracks.—Colin Ellard

About the Author:

Colin Ellard is an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo, the director of its Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments, and an international expert in the psychology of navigation. The results of his research have been published in scientific journals for more than twenty years. Ellard lives in, and regularly gets lost in, Kitchener, Ontario.

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