In the premiere episode of the Cottage Life Podcast Season 3, Editor Michelle Kelly chats with Deputy Editor Liann Bobechko about the science of wayfinding. Listen here or visit cottagelife.com for access to all of the episodes.
I know my way around our cottage woods pretty well. I can walk the path through the forest to the lake in the dark without a flashlight—my feet know the way. Between my family’s property, the neighbour’s lot, and the old farm on the other side, there are more than 100 acres to explore, crossed by deer trails and hydro corridors, creeks and valleys. I’ve been tromping over that land my whole life, so it was a shock when I got lost there last winter.
My two daughters, my husband, Steve, and I strapped on our snowshoes late one bright, frigid afternoon in February. We’d been online all day, and cabin fever was imminent. Striking out northwestward from the cottage, we made our way up the long, gradual slope, stopping to look at lichen and bracket fungi, and to adjust the kids’ snowshoes when they came loose.
We spotted a surprising number of intricate and convoluted mouse trails—with their small foot and long, straight tail prints—left on the untrammelled snow, moving between trees practically everywhere we looked. What the heck were they doing, we wondered.
As the shadows started to lengthen, we made our way farther up, clambering around fallen trees. As we climbed, weariness began to outpace enthusiasm. At the top of the ridge, we came to a stand of hemlock where we discovered a couple of deer beds under the delicate branches. When had the animals last been there? Would a fawn snuggle up on its own in a small spot or beside its mama in a big one? We knew there were wolves around; we’d seen the remains of their deer kill a few weeks earlier. We felt relief on behalf of our imaginary deer family for the protection offered by a cliff like this.
Standing in the shade of the dense cover, our feet and fingers started to feel cold. We decided to head back—but rather than following our original trail, we’d make a loop and trek down the steep side of the hill. It never occurred to me to register our location too closely; I had a general sense that ahead of us lay the creek that leads to the valley, and we trudged onwards, trusting the stream would funnel us to the road, where the going would be easier.
We made our way down the hillside, into the glow of dusk, leaping from boulders into the soft, powdery snow with our big umbrella feet, shouting and laughing. We picked up sticks and became Jedi, exploring our way through a strange, frozen planet.
As the terrain levelled out down in the valley, I paused and felt my first pinprick of doubt. Everything looked flattish, the ground disguised by the deep drifts. Where was the creek? Which way was it from here? Was it hidden by the snow? Or perhaps—oh, no—with all that leaping we had swung north, parallel to the creek. Away from the road.
Lightsabers forgotten, Steve and the kids were busy peeking into a hole in a tree—playing our usual “who do you think lives there?” game. I decided to check my phone—just to get my bearings, I told myself, not ready to admit that I was lost. Lost not on a foreign planet, but on the land I’d known so well for so long. I pulled it out and, of course, it crapped out in the cold. That pinprick of doubt was now feeling more like panic: I had not brought snacks. I had not brought a flashlight. No one knew we were even out. We were going to die here in the woods on an afternoon hike.
“Most of us have boundless confidence that we can always figure out where we are,” says Colin Ellard, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo. He tells me a story about a park ranger who was lost in the woods but had such conviction that he knew where he was that he decided his compass was wrong. “So he destroyed it—smashed it on a rock—because he was so frustrated. He felt, I know this way is north, but the compass was telling him it was this other direction.” Now, Ellard says, that ranger always takes two compasses into the bush.
It’s comforting to hear that even experienced outdoors people can get disoriented. There’s a huge variation in humans’ ability to find our way around the environment, according to Giuseppe Iaria, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Calgary. “If you take 100 cottagers, the majority are going to be within the wide, normal range. They are not exceptional at orientation, and they also don’t have significant problems navigating.” One or two per cent of people have a profound inability to find their way, a condition called Developmental Topographical Disorientation, or DTD, which Iaria studies. But within the normal zone, “some people are fast in becoming familiar with their environment, some can take five to 10 times longer.” Depending on factors including age, sex, the opportunity to practice, and genetic factors, a person’s ability to find their way varies significantly. (Read more about his research on DTD and learn to navigate better at gettinglost.ca)
In the 1970s, scientists studied rats to try to understand how our brains navigate. When one of the study rats was in a specific location, cells in the hippocampus would fire. Over the course of a few years of work, the idea grew that this area of the brain might form some kind of “cognitive map.” In the last 50 years, Iaria says, we’ve learned it’s not just these place cells, as they were called, that help form mental maps. There are also directional head cells that fire when looking one way versus another, border cells that fire when walking around the boundaries of a space, and grid cells that fire in a pattern, forming a grid. All of these cells work together to help animals (including us) make sense of where they are in a given location. Recent research also points to the existence of time cells, which help us locate our memories not only in space, but in time. “The hippocampus seems to be a central clearing house for understanding where we are in the world,” says Colin Ellard. “Ideally placed near the centre of your brain, it receives a huge number of inputs and makes the story of where you are and how you got there.”
So that’s where the magic happens, but the how is even more fascinating. The strategy that we use most commonly in getting around on a daily basis is procedural memory. Akin to muscle memory, it’s what lets us, say, drive to work while listening to the radio, explains Iaria. We don’t need to think about it—we’re on autopilot. “It’s essentially a system for the brain to keep up without using higher cognitive functions and to not be exhausted,” he says. Say at the cottage you have four places you go: the cottage itself, the dock, the boathouse, and the outhouse. It’s easy for your brain to remember the paths between those four points, and because you’ve walked them thousands of times, you don’t have to think about what turns to take—you could walk there in the dark. So we can move from A to B, B to A, A to C, C to D, etc. But, eventually, too many points are more than our brains can hold—about seven to 10 items in our short-term memory. “So the ideal situation would be to have a dynamic tool,” says Iaria, “one that allows us to go place-to-place without having too much load on our memory.” That tool is the cognitive map.
This map allows us to link up locations in our minds to form a spatial understanding of our surroundings. Because it’s dynamic, you can still direct yourself to the target location. “The cognitive map is what’s going to save your life,” Iaria says, not following one trail you’ve taken for 20 years. When you rely on that automatic muscle memory, you can go out in the dark, but as soon as you get off that trail—say there’s a tree blocking it, or you followed an interesting set of tracks—suddenly you don’t know your way back.
A mental map is more robust—and made stronger each time you move around in it. But these maps don’t always keep us from getting lost. Our cognitive map is full of distortions, Ellard says. “Often they only have a vague resemblance to reality, the way a subway map is a boiled-down geometric map.” We also tend to put our mental maps onto a framework (like a grid), which doesn’t always match reality.
When my family headed out on our winter walk that day, we wanted to go farther afield than our more familiar route, which, during the pandemic, was starting to feel a little too familiar. Our walk was not in our procedural memory or on our cognitive map. When going into unfamiliar territory, we use landmarks to help us recognize our past movements. For most of us, “it’s easier in an urban environment to identify landmarks, such as Starbucks, or the SaveOnFoods, or ‘the beautiful, red building,’ ” says Iaria. “But in the woods, we get lost pretty quickly unless we have our wits about us,” says Ellard. The challenge when you’re in the forest or the mountains is to find the equivalent of the beautiful, red building. “Good explorers are the ones who are skilled enough to identify those,” says Iaria. The trees may all look the same superficially, but once you remark on the details that make one tree, one rock, one creekbend different from another, you’re using them as landmarks. You must be consciously looking for these critical details.
In the case of our snowshoe hike, we were paying attention to the details around us—the fungi, the fallen trees, and the mouse trails. But when we decided to do a loop rather than a there-and-back route, those ceased to help. We were relying on another skill, one called path integration, that helps keep a running tally of where we are by remembering where we’ve been and how we got there. Ellard tells me about a time he got lost in Algonquin Provincial Park. “I did the thing you’re never supposed to do in that kind of place, which is to leave the path.
I had a map, but rather than following the path, I thought, If I cut a straight line through, I’ll find the trail and save myself time.” After Ellard understood he was lost, and finally figured out where he was, he realized that rather than moving in a straight line, he’d actually turned 180 degrees. “That kind of thing happens all the time,” he says—as with the compass-smashing ranger. Whether you’re walking in the woods or are in a boat in a fog, holding course can be extremely difficult. As a species, he says, “we can’t accurately keep track of our past movements to maintain our sense of where we are very well at all.” Researchers have done experiments where people are unleashed in the woods and told to simply walk in a straight line. We can’t do it. We have natural asymmetries that tend to make us go in one direction. It seems like an easy thing to know what direction we’re travelling, but it’s not.
As we went up the hill away from the cottage, my cognitive map grew increasingly fuzzy, like crossing onto the part of an old-timey explorer’s map labelled, “Here be dragons.” When we went down the hillside, leaving landmarks behind, picking our way around obstacles and across a snow-covered landscape, trying to reach the road, my path integration got thrown for a loop—literally.
But what about that instinct to check my phone’s map on that winter day? It’s a useful crutch, one that has often helped me get unlost in the city and along unfamiliar country roads. Before phones got so smart, I would chart out my route on the paper map I kept in my glove compartment and stop along the way to check my progress or ask for help. With the ubiquity of GPS on our phones, are our brains out of practice? Even lazy?
It’s not that our brains are lazy, exactly—but if we always orient within the same familiar environment, and then only use GPS when going to an unfamiliar place, “yeah, we are going to lose some of those skills,” Iaria says. “The brain is one of the most plastic organs we have. We think of it as being good, and then it declines. But from a neurological perspective, the brain changes daily.” It’s constantly optimizing. That’s useful if you want to pick up a new skill—or learn new directions. There are all kinds of studies that have been done on the hippocampus, including famous experiments with London cab drivers who undergo arduous training in wayfinding to prepare for a test known, charmingly, as “The Knowledge.” The research found that learning the city’s layout and the many routes within it seems to strengthen the drivers’ brains.
“But the bad news is that the brain does not like to waste resources,” Iaria says. So if you’re not using those important skills, the connectivity that supports that behaviour is not there anymore. “Essentially, it’s ‘use it or lose it.’ If there’s brain function, it’s there for a reason. If there’s no function, it gets reorganized into something else.”
So if we’re using GPS all the time, we’re not keeping up our navigation skills, which was the finding of a study out of McGill University by researchers Louise Dahmani and Veronique Bohbot. They found that the more often people used GPS in their lifetimes, the worse their spatial memory became when navigating without GPS. Furthermore, the researchers found a noticeable decline in the spatial memory of people who used GPS over a three-year period—in sort of a corollary to the London cabbie experiment. If we don’t want to lose our skills, what should we do? Should we stop using GPS altogether?
Navigation is a challenge for people, especially at a time when we travel far and fast, so there’s no problem with getting help from apps and tools on devices. “I use one myself,” Iaria admits. “I just use it strategically—if I’m going to a new place or to keep from being late. Or if I’m not interested in learning where that place is.”
On the other hand, there are times when we should practice without that crutch. “If I’m in a new town and have dedicated time to explore, I don’t use a GPS. I may use a map to get a sense of where things are,” Iaria says, “but that’s where it’s important to use our cognitive skills.” At the cottage, he suggests exploring an area of about one square kilometre, learning to discern landmarks as you go, and then expanding from there. As you explore, you learn to connect them together. Unlike when we’re in our hometown, where we get around between our usual destinations using that procedural or automatic approach, in a new place, you can practice building a cognitive map, decreasing the unmapped parts of your world.
Obviously, we made it out of the woods alive that day. After my phone died in the cold, I quietly admitted to Steve I wasn’t sure where we were. He calmly assured me to stay the course. We kept walking—with me trying not to freak out—when suddenly we made out the curve of the road, lit slightly brighter where the tree canopy parted. Everything snapped back into place, and I was no longer lost. It’s an embarrassing story to tell, especially because we came out to the road almost in sight of the cottage.
But that embarrassment bore me an important lesson. I will learn to be more like the mice whose trails we saw in the snow. I’ll add my own criss-crossed tracks all over the forest floor—connecting trees and rocks in my mind—and build a map where no dragons can hide.