Some years ago I participated in a late-night Radio 3 show on exploration and travel. When I left the studio with my fellow contributors, both distinguished explorers, we got lost in the bowels of Broadcasting House. Round and round the dimly lit corridors we trudged, and only after talk of bivouacking did we finally reach a lift and escape.
Michael Bond, formerly the senior editor at New Scientist, has produced Wayfinding, an excellently researched popular science book which explains how people — including experienced travellers — get lost, and why some individuals have superior navigational skills than others. ‘Most importantly,’ he writes at the outset, ‘the book is about our relationship with places, and how our understanding of the world around us affects our psychology and behaviour.’
Arranging his material thematically, Bond begins with what we know of prehistoric man’s astonishing ability to remember a route over vast distances, and goes on to examine the skills of the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers, for example the Aché of eastern Paraguay. He then examines the spatial abilities of children compared with those of adults. Which nationalities are best at finding their way around (Finns top the table) and why? A lot of pages are devoted to the workings of the brain, and in particular how that organ acquires and then uses knowledge of space. The hippocampus has a starring role here, as it is the part of the brain which produces detailed spatial observation. (London black cab drivers have bigger hippocampi than average.)
A core theme throughout is how our brains make the cognitive maps that keep us orientated (or don’t). Do genetics, upbringing or whether you are left-handed play a role? About halfway through, Bond reaches the big one: is it true that women are worse navigators than men? (You’ll have to read the book to find out, as there are various theories and much that we don’t know.