Are Oldschool Directions Better for Our Brains?



Salmon can do what Thomas Wolfe swore we could not: Travel nine hundred miles to go home again. Homing pigeons can fly a thousand miles away, circle back, and arrive where they began. In her musings on Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way, by David Barrie, and Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation, Kathryn Schulz revels in the feats of wildlife navigation. I read her description of the Clark’s nutcracker crow retrieving food it has hidden in six thousand different locations and feel faint. Why, if a honeybee can count its wing beats and a humble ant can gauge the length of its steps, can I not find my way through a subdivision?

Nature’s Compass offers part of the answer. Animals use light or sound—some can perceive infrasound, electrical fields, or the polarization of light—as well as landmarks, internal compasses, and “dead reckoning,” that great phrase for calculating where you are by figuring out your orientation, your speed, and the length of time you have been traveling. If I had to rely on such reckoning, I would be found dead.

Instead, like Blanche, I rely on the kindness of strangers. I roll down my window and gesture; I call out to a lady walking her Pomeranian; I pop into a gas station’s convenience mart and throw my future at their feet. When I was younger, panic rose the minute I left a main drag. Invariably, I would miss my turn or take it in the wrong direction. You would think GPS a solution—and it is, especially in the profanity I have perfected by screaming back at Siri when she, in that flat tone that sounds so condescending when you are lost, reverses me, then tells me I am “back on line.”

Granted, Siri, unlike me, has gotten better with age. But if a sudden flood that makes her route impassable, or someone lives far enough off the grid, or Sprint loses its mojo, there are still ways for me to get lost. I sorely miss the directions old people give, the way they launch into them as soon as you have set the time of your arrival: “Now once you get off the freeway, what you want to do is….” They will tell you about creeks and speed traps and weird stuff in their neighbors’ yards, and when to slow down, and how to know (especially useful for me) that you have gone too far. These are lived directions, steeped with a sense of place, and as you scribble them down, you enter into the lifeworld of the person you are visiting. They are telling you what they pay attention to, what they find remarkable or charming or dangerous. You get a bit of history, too: landmarks that used to be something else, a stream that changed course, an old schoolhouse that was abandoned. Those who love nature will tell you where you might see hawks gliding overhead or spot an eagle’s nest, where the deer cross, where you will have the best view.

Siri tells me none of that.

When I use GPS (and I do; sometimes I even let it take me home when I already know the route, because I am tired and it is soothing to be guided), my brain goes on auto-pilot. All I do is obey, and my mind is free to dwell on all I have to do that week and all I have left undone. Instead of watching with vigilance for a stacked-stone wall or an S-curve or a white church steeple, I respond to robotic voice commands. It is a state of mind that turns me inward, disconnecting me from the land even as I move across it.

Does it make a difference, how we choose to get someplace? The amount of information Google provides has addicted me—I love the pedestrian option, the pins and favorites, the reviews and photos and restaurants nearby. And Waze reroutes you the way a good friend might, other Wazers warning of an upcoming traffic jam or police alert or noting cool places along the way. My husband spurns all of this and simply unfolds (remember those?) a map. He squints for a minute, and then his index finger traces a line, hesitates, settles on a route. If I send him Google Map directions, he ignores the steps and zooms in on the map, figuring it out himself.

For Andrew, wayfinding is all about self-reliance. His brain stores the images he sees along the way as he compares his paper map to the world, and once he has been someplace, he can always find it again, and he will know what landmarks to offer a lost stranger. I still ask Siri to take me to the house where my best friend has lived for two decades, so I will not have to worry about which way to turn off the highway. But what I remember, always? How she told me that the turn for her street was right where the road changed to asphalt.

Though I love oldschool directions, I continually urge Andrew to accept progress, use technology, cave in to it as I have been forced to do. And then I find a study in The Professional Geographer (ha! Me reading that!) that says relying on GPS makes you less efficient and weakens your spatial orientation. “Longtime users of maps tended to be high on sense of direction,” the researchers found; they learned more about their route and were more strategic about navigating the best route. The authors also cite multiple studies in which “people made more navigational errors with the mobile tool than the paper map,” probably because they were not holding a picture of their entire route in their head.

So much for wifely wisdom. I move on to an article in Cities: “The use of these systems limits the visual and tactile relationship of individuals with the environment and diminishes the holistic experience and profoundness of a live mental image.” Interestingly enough, the authors found that using GPS in an unfamiliar city does not stop us from observing landmarks, which might be a survival strategy our brains still trust more than Siri….

For the rock lobster, wayfinding is survival. Schulz learns from Supernavigators that “you can cover a rock lobster’s eyes, put it in an opaque container filled with seawater from its native environment, line the container with magnets suspended from strings so they swing in all directions, put the container in a truck, drive the truck in circles on the way to a boat, steer the boat in circles on the way to a distant location, drop the lobster back in the water, and—voilà—it will strike off confidently in the direction of home.”

Stunning. But honestly? I have come to like not being quite sure where I am. It feels existentially accurate. At this age, I am calm enough to weather the suspense—will I ever find the place? What will I see and who will I meet along the way? Siri is too arrogant for my taste, though I continue to use her because I am hapless. We have too many road signs and halogen lights, too little mystery and wildness. I would rather have a human being prepare me for my journey, then set me free to find my way.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.