Books We Like - A Scientist Homes In On Our Sense Of Direction You Are Here delves into the physiology and folklore of wayfinding. Alternating between scientific experiments and real-world examples, psychologist Colin Ellard bares the brain's algorithms for finding the body's location on the planet.
NPR logo A Scientist Homes In On Our Sense Of Direction


Book Reviews

A Scientist Homes In On Our Sense Of Direction

'You Are Here' cover
You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall
By Colin Ellard
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

In the modern world, those of us with iPhones or in-car GPS units can locate our positions on the planet easily and accurately. Yet without electronic assistance, as behavioral psychologist Colin Ellard demonstrates in his new book, You Are Here, contemporary Westerners consistently find themselves disoriented and lost. For human beings, navigation and wayfinding have very nearly become lost arts, practiced primarily by remote indigenous peoples for whom an inaccurate turn can prove fatal.

For all our geographical cluelessness, though, humans maintain a profound connection to the three-dimensional spaces their bodies inhabit. In human psychology, You Are Here argues, simple geometry rules. We are highly attuned to the shapes of our environments, seeking out spaciousness, for example, because it provides us with a wide-angle view of potential threats to our safety. A room's geometric symmetry instinctively weighs heavily on our choices of where to situate ourselves within it.

Indeed, Ellard cites a study at the Tate Gallery in London that demonstrates that it doesn't matter where specific paintings are placed in a given exhibition; people gravitate to the same locations in the gallery.

By alternating between descriptions of experiments and entertaining re-creations of real-world examples, Ellard walks readers through those mental glitches and quirks that make modern human navigation such a dicey enterprise. In a way, he lays bare the algorithms your brain follows — predictably and rationally, the reader discovers — in order to determine your body's location.

Experience and experiment demonstrate that there is an overtly scientific method behind the madness of disorientation. To illustrate, Ellard brings readers into windowless rooms and laboratory labyrinths, then out to Middle Eastern deserts and Arctic ice sheets. Along the way, he explains how, using traditional navigational techniques, Bedouin nomads and the Inuit manage to stay "found" in their barren, relatively featureless environments.

Author Colin Ellard is an experimental psychologist who studies the human sense of direction. Lisa Sakulensky hide caption

toggle caption
Lisa Sakulensky

We may never learn how to pinpoint our locations based on the careful analysis of camel dung, as the Bedouins do, but with a little less iPhone and a little more attention to detail, we can reach a better understanding of where "here" actually is — be it on the beach in Micronesia, amid a gaping fjord in Norway, or even aboard a Heathrow-bound 767 streaking over Newfoundland in the middle of the night.

Ellard's enthusiasm for his subject enlivens each chapter of his book, making even the most mundane entomological experiment or exegesis of psychological geekspeak feel fresh and fascinating.

In any room, in any hemisphere, camper, climber and carpooler alike will find plenty to delight them in You Are Here.

Excerpt: 'You Are Here'

You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall
By Colin Ellard
Hardcover, 336 pages
List Price: $25

Finding Our Way Through Buildings

When Bob Propst invented the Action Office concept in 1965, he unwittingly (and much to his later horror) helped to set in motion developments in the organization of workspaces that would culminate in an epidemic of unhappy and unhealthy office workers trapped in stultifying beehives of cubicles.

Propst's invention of the Action Office, a modular design system in which "panels" could be matched with function and combined like so many building blocks to produce a highly functional workspace, was meant to begin a revolution in office design. Propst's aim was to bring the design of workspaces into closer accord with what he saw as revolutionary changes that were taking place in the world of work during the 1960s. For one thing, workers were being required to deal with huge amounts of information necessitating complicated workflow and communication requirements like nothing that had been seen before. The Action Office was designed to facilitate these new requirements in environments that were spacious, comfortable, attractive, and ergonomically sound. Indeed, the Herman Miller Company, with a $1.5 billion market share as one of the world's leading providers of office furniture and environments, continues to offer versions of the Action Office based on some of Propst's original ideas.

Somewhere along the way, though, much of Propst's thinking was hijacked. In place of Action Offices designed to provide thoughtful integration of the needs of both an individual worker and collaborative groups, there arose the nefarious cubicle, essentially designed to maximize the number of workers who could be housed in expensive urban real estate but not always with adequate consideration given to how the shapes of spaces made by the great nests of cubicles might affect navigation, communication, or the general state of mind of workers. In contrast to Propst's Action Office concept, classic cubicles isolate workers in any one of a vast number of small, identical workspaces while effectively cutting them off from co-workers with the use of high partitions.

There is no shortage of satire dealing with the problems of cubicle culture, from Dilbert cartoons to the cult movie classic Office Space. This form of office organization has also given rise to lexical novelties. "Gophering" is exactly what it sounds like — the practice of standing up to raise one's eyes above cubicle walls to take in a larger vista. Gophering in cubicle farms is elicited by exactly the same kinds of events that produce this behavior in the animals from which the name is taken — a desire to take in additional information in the face of some kind of threat or instability such as a loud noise (a shouting co-worker or supervisor) or some other kind of stimulus such as an unusual smell (of food, hopefully). Though it sounds funny, gophering is a genuine response to an environment that has spatial limitations. People are peering over the tops of cubicle walls in part to make up for an information deficit that has been produced by the configuration of space in their office.

Those of us who have to work in cubicle farms may find them soul destroying, and those of us who don't might be amused by them, but the main thing is that our behavior in such work environments points up the importance of the configuration of space not just in our homes but in the larger indoor spaces of our lives — spaces in which we work, play, or educate or entertain ourselves. Just as the right kind of house can make us feel happy, thoughtful, excited, or creative, so can workplaces and other, more public spaces influence our feelings and behavior in important ways, both positive and negative.

When thinking about the spaces inside our dwellings, we are often preoccupied with the influence of space on repose. Where are the best resting or thinking places? Where do we bring company to sit? In larger buildings such as offices, schools, courthouses, government buildings, and shopping malls, we are likely to spend more of our time in motion, and the way that we move from one place to another is likely to influence the quality of our experiences or the efficiency of our workday. To understand how the organization of physical space affects our movements, we need to look beyond isovists to see how the appearance of inner spaces is influenced by movement.

Researchers interested in the technical properties of space and how those properties change for us as we move have defined new measures that are related to the isovist analyses we considered in the last chapter. One such measure is called a visibility graph. To understand how visibility graphs are constructed, remember that the isovist represents all visible locations, as defined by both open and closed contours, from a single position in an interior such as the large family room/kitchen in my house. Isovists work well to define all that can be seen from a single point in space, but to understand how the shape of space influences movement, we need to consider the connections between isovists.

The isovist that is available to me changes as I walk across a room, from one side to the other. A visibility graph is a symbolic way of representing such changes using the concept of intervisibility. Two locations in a space are said to be intervisible if an observer standing at one of the two points could see the other. Imagine a complex space, such as an irregularly shaped room in an art gallery, filled with an orderly grid of points, where each point represented a potential viewing position. At each viewing position, some of the other points would be visible and others would not. A visibility graph for this space would show all of the intervisible points. This type of representation is interesting because it shows how our perceptions of space change as we walk about. Just as an isovist can be used to characterize the size and shape of a piece of space from a single viewpoint, a visibility graph can be used to do much the same kind of thing, except that it reflects the way that the appearance of the space changes with our movements.

For example, the "stability" of a space is a measure of how the number of intervisible locations varies in different parts of a space. A bland, rectangular space with no visual occlusions, such as a large great room in a modern suburban home, would be a very stable space. A more jagged arrangement with lots of walls and barriers jutting out, a spiky space in other words, would be much less stable. Another spatial measure that can be derived from the visibility graph is something called the mean shortest path length. To calculate this, we measure the shortest distance from each point in our grid to every other point and then we calculate the average. This value will depend very much on the overall shape of the space as well as on any barriers to movement that might be within it, such as pieces of furniture in a home or desks in a workspace. A measure like mean shortest path length is different from isovist measures because it reflects not only the shape of a space but also its possibilities for movement. I may be able to see the window from behind the outer edge of my cubicle wall, but if I decide to walk to the window I need to walk around another row of cubicles.

If visibility graphs were just another cool toy for mathematicians interested in space, they would not be worth our trouble here, but there are intriguing indications that such graphs, and many other related tools for analyzing space, can make surprisingly accurate predictions about how we move through and spend our time in a complex configuration of space. The Space Syntax Laboratory, a part of the Bartlett School of Planning at University College, London, has had marked success in predicting how people move through spaces on the basis of the graphical tools I have been describing.3 Because most of the work of this group is concerned with the influence of spatial configuration in larger urban settings, we will deal with it more extensively in the next chapter, on city space, but many of the principles used to steer urban planning apply equally well to interior spaces.

For example, an analysis of intervisibility and shortest path length values for the Tate Gallery in London has been used successfully to predict where visitors will congregate in the gallery. The Space Syntax Laboratory has used these kinds of analyses to advise the gallery on the effective placement of exhibits to encourage the flow of people and avoid pedestrian gridlock. What is most remarkable about the success of these analyses is that they work well even when little or no account is taken of what kinds of objects will actually be in the space. Analyses of space can be based on the raw configuration of space — its shape rather than its contents.

Predicting where people will congregate in a space based on its shape can be a useful tool for planners. A gallery owner wishing to draw maximal attention to a particular work of art could use visibility graphs to determine where best to place the work. A designer of shopping malls could engineer a space so as to steer people to some locations and away from others. A committee of workers trying to design an efficient workspace could use a basic understanding of space to facilitate a particular group dynamic by engineering the manner in which people interact in the space. Sometimes, such strategies can be explicit and obvious and don't require any mathematical measures at all. For example, most people are aware of explicit spatial strategies used by grocery stores to ensure maximal traffic, such as placing the dairy case as far as possible from the entry door so that customers dashing in for a carton of milk must navigate many aisles of products they didn't set out to buy. In other cases, much more subtle methods can be used. To understand a few more of these subtleties, we must take our analyses of the shapes of space just a little further.

Excerpted from You Are Here by Colin Ellard. Copyright 2009 by Colin Ellard. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday.

Related NPR Stories

Books Featured In This Story