by Nigel Williams
Lockdown has provided a great opportunity to read and research the inner workings of how we navigate. The 2020 book "Wayfinding" by Michael Bond provided a wonderful synopsis of where research is heading today, some of it linked to Alzheimer's research.
Over the last 60 years geographers, cartographers, psychologists and neurologists have produced hundreds of research papers on how humans navigate. Many acknowledge that it involves a wide range of complex learned skills and that confidence plays a key role in our ability. A wise old navigator once said "navigation is 25% map reading, 25% compass work and 50% confidence in the other two". It is more nuanced than that, of course, but it conveys the importance of confidence because it is entwined with decision making which is a key part of navigation (that also opens up a world of heuristic biases).
Researchers come at it from different viewpoints, from how many symbols can the brain interpret at one time to what are the key cognitive strategies involved, to which areas of the brain influence different elements of navigation and whether reliance on GPS stifles the development of those brain cells, and inevitably, are men or women better navigators?
I'm pleased to say that from what I have observed over the years and read recently there is no definitive answer to that last one. However, maps have traditionally been made by men and some research suggests that maps would be different if women had been at the forefront of their development and symbology, and it questions whether that would influence the perceptions around gender and navigation ability.
Navigation ability may be influenced from soon after we are born, as it is fundamental to human function. Social influences, such as opportunities to play with and do things that develop spatial awareness, also pay their part. Freedom as a child to explore unfamiliar terrain and have outdoor adventures and early engagement with simple plans and maps of familiar environments which build confidence are important. There appear to be 4 main parts of the brain that work in unison to provide spatial awareness and navigation ability. Skills such as map setting, terrain observation, interpreting symbols, map memory etc. are a complex mix of tasks.
Take one simple example, managing conflicting orientation of information on a map between symbols and writing; is it easier to navigate with heads up on written words and mentally rotating symbols or vice versa? This is really fundamental, to use symbols is much more complex (and tiring for the brain) than reading writing so it is natural for many people to be drawn to reading the writing. This is also a very good reason why an orienteering map is invaluable when introducing beginners to map setting skills (there is no writing over the symbols). Using symbols require the comprehension of a bird's eye view, and experience of the environment one is travelling in to enable visualisation of the terrain depicted.
One area that seems to be overlooked in all of this is an apparent disconnect between the cognitive research and how navigation is generally taught in the UK (usually with a focus on numeracy, out of context compass work, and less than ideal cartography and map scales for novices). Simple teaching progressions combining skills with appropriate cartography matched by outdoor terrain and environmental experience are key to developing navigation confidence and decision making.Return to top