Lost? Never Fear, 'You Are Here' According to experimental psychologist Colin Ellard, ants and hamsters have a better sense of direction than humans. For his book, You Are Here, Ellard discovered the reasons why we humans are so bad at finding our way.
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Lost? Never Fear, 'You Are Here'

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Lost? Never Fear, 'You Are Here'

Lost? Never Fear, 'You Are Here'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Researchers have to go to enormous lengths to successful disorient a lab rat or a mouse. In his new book, experimental psychologist Colin Ellard explains that the animals have to be placed in a light-proof box that's put on top of a turntable that's moving so slowly they can't tell, and then moved down the hallway. Without those precautions, he writes, the animals unfailingly find their way back.

Put most of us in our own bedrooms, turn off the lights, and we're likely to stumble into the dresser. At the same time, of course, people can guide a probe to a soft landing on a precise part of Mars. Why is our sense of navigation so different from homing pigeons or ants or, as Colin Ellard puts it in the subtitle of his new book, "You are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon but Get Lost in the Mall."

If you'd like to know, the phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We also have an email challenge going. Tell us your story about getting lost and found. Email, again: talk@npr.org.

Colin Ellard joins us from the studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Dr. COLIN ELLARD (Experimental Psychologist, Author): Thanks, Neal. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And the first thing a lot of people, I think, would say is, well, we used to be great navigators with remarkable abilities to find our way across forests and oceans and desert, but these senses have been dulled by civilization.

Dr. ELLARD: Yeah. I think that there's certainly some merit to that point of view. One of the things that I talk about in the book is the habits of traditional way-finding cultures like the Inuit in the Arctic, Australian Aborigines and Pacific Ocean seafarers, all of whom had to know quite precisely where they were or they quite quickly met with death. And I think that that's really one of the big differences between the average, modern, urban human being and us.

We have, by dint of this fantastic cognitive apparatus that we have, we've been able to build these tremendously supportive environments that kind of rescue us, prevent us from getting into trouble, so that the worst thing that's likely to happen to somebody wandering through a city and losing their way is that they might have to ask for directions or consult a map, but they're not going to die. And I think that has actually caused some changes in the way that we behave when we way-find.

CONAN: Here's an email just to that point from Eric: On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., from Boston, I was asked to navigate. Being a cartographer and having gone to school in the D.C. area, everyone thought I was the natural choice to get us where we needed to go.

After taking a wrong turn and winding up in a bad section of Baltimore, I had to swallow my pride and ask for directions. I have yet to live that one down. We think we know where we're going, and we are so often wrong.

Dr. ELLARD: That's absolutely correct. And you know, one of the hallmarks of people who become lost, the hallmarks of their behavior, is that we often seem to have this disconnect between what we think we can accomplish and what we actually can accomplish.

And so there tends to be a too-long interval of time between when we actually become lost and when we're willing to acknowledge it. And during that span of time, we become even more disoriented, and the chances of our finding our way are even more remote.

CONAN: Yet you also described experiments where people were disoriented, not unlike those mice and rats that we were talking about, and taken out into a field and say all right, point north. And most people can.

Dr. ELLARD: In some circumstances, they can. And in some experiments that were reported in the 1980s - I think the experiments that you're referring to might have been the ones carried out by a scientist named Robin Baker, who was trying to ascertain whether or not human beings - like homing pigeons and sea turtles and a variety of other animals - had kind of a magnetic sense.

And so in some experiments, he argued that he could show that people led off into the woods or led on a long and tortuous bus ride, when released were able to point to north. But the - overall, I'd say that the evidence that people can actually do that well is equivocal at best. I think that there are just as many studies that show that we're really not very good at pointing out the cardinal directions.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Dr. ELLARD: That - I was going to say, that said, one of the marvelous things about writing a book like this is that you begin to hear the stories from people, many of which I'm hoping to look - I'm looking forward to hearing today, that show that there's tremendous variability.

So at one end of the scale, there are people who literally get lost in their own homes. And at the other end of the scale, there are people who genuinely can point to north, even in fairly heavy, say, bush.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Kara's with us from Amherst in Massachusetts.

KARA (Caller): Hi, yes. As soon as I heard the topic today, I thought of my husband. The day I gave birth - thank you for having me, by the way - the day I gave birth to my twin girls, my husband - it was early, so my husband was in Upstate New York. And he was taking the Mass Pike east, and I was in Hartford, and he somehow got the directions wrong and ended up going north to Vermont instead of down to Hartford, where I was giving birth to our children and missing a little bit.

But he just - he's one of those people you were just saying gets lost in your bedroom, and it drives us nuts. And I was wondering, what is - why is there such a difference, like, between people? I mean, he just - luckily, he asks directions, but why is there such a difference between the way people can find their direction?

Dr. ELLARD: That's a great question, Kara, and I think that we're really only at the beginning of figuring out how to find answers to those questions because the extent of the variability, for reasons that I'm not clear on, has really not been explored until fairly recently.

So in the situation that you're describing - by the way, I should say that I'm relieved to hear a childbirth story involving the father that's more embarrassing than some of the stories that I could tell, but won't.

In that particular case, of course, one of the factors that's involved is emotion and stress. And that's a typical situation, where people will become disoriented if they become distracted. One of the things that we don't really do a very good job of - and this is kind of a double-edged sword because it has some advantages, as well. But one of the things that we're not very good at is maintaining our sense of being in the here and now, as opposed to constantly jumping from place to place and time to time with our minds.

So it's a wonderful thing that we can actually imagine ourselves to be somewhere other than we are, or imagine someplace where we're not or a time future or a time past. It's one of the things that is special about human beings. But the consequence of that is that once we have those kinds of lapses, then we're lost, and I think under situations of emotion or stress, those kinds of lapses are more likely to happen.

So that, I think, may be one of the factors involved in that variability. I think people who maybe tend to mind-wander more when they're moving about are more likely to lose their bearings.

CONAN: I wonder, given what you've just said, do we navigate better in virtual reality, in a place like Second Life, for example, where we can fly, among other things. Do we navigate better there than we do in real life?

Dr. ELLARD: That's a great question, Neal. That's a question that not only scientists like me, but also people like game designers would like to have answers to.

I would say that the short answer would be that in general, we do not navigate as well in virtual worlds as we do in the real thing, and the biggest reason for that is that in most versions of virtual reality, you don't have the same kind of feedback from your movements that you do in the real world.

CONAN: You're not getting real - yeah, feeling the motion. Yes, exactly.

Dr. ELLARD: Yeah. So most typically, you're using something like a mouse or a joystick to move, and that's not the same thing at all as walking around. On the other hand, there are some really interesting studies suggesting that in some ways, we do treat virtual worlds as though they're very real.

I think my favorite study is one that was, in fact, carried out in Second Life, and the question that was being asked had to do with something called personal distance. So everybody knows from intuition that there are certain kinds of rules that we follow when we're talking to people. We make jokes about close-talkers, for example, people who we feel are invading our personal space.

There are rules for eye contact. There are rules for gender differences. Women speaking to women, for example, might stand closer than men speaking to men. And what's really interesting about Second Life, where what you're doing is representing yourself by means of this really, just a little piece of animation called an avatar, just a cartoon of yourself, is that people seem to obey those same personal-distance rules with their avatars as they do with their real bodies.

So there's this really intriguing evidence to suggest that we can become immersed in these virtual worlds in a way that makes us behave as though they're real.

CONAN: Kara, thank you very much for the call.

KARA: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye, and let's read some emails, this from Peter in Durham. My lack of - excuse me, Durham, I think, in North Carolina. My sense of direction drives my wife nuts. My dad also had a bad sense of driving direction. Is it hereditary? Maybe this could be my excuse. I also used to live in New York City and would always get disoriented when coming up out of the subway.

Dr. ELLARD: I am so happy that we are hearing from people today who feel that they're at the low end of the scale in sense of direction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLARD: My sense is that sometimes with phone-ins, those people lurk, and we hear from the people who consider themselves to be excellent way-finders. What I would say, first of all, is that I don't know of any evidence that sense of direction is hereditary. I know people who are interested in that very question and who are beginning to think about how to do some studies to determine whether that's the case. And the focus of those studies will likely be on people who profoundly lack a sense of direction.

What I suspect is maybe more important than heredity, though, is environment. I hear stories all the time from people who, for example, have grown up in one kind of city and moved to another kind of city. So for example, New York City is what's referred to as a classic grid city, and I think the reasons are…

CONAN: Unless you're downtown, yeah.

Dr. ELLARD: Yeah, exactly. Whereas other cities might have many more streets with - that lack right-angle intersections, kind of a serpentine organization to the streets. And I think the kind of city layout that you've grown up in has an influence later on, on how you way-find, and also whether or not you've grown up in an urban environment or in a rural one.

So for example, I've heard lots of stories from farmers who tell me that they consider themselves to have a tremendously good sense of direction, and they probably do. And I think a lot of that has to do with the kinds of things that you notice. The way that you use visual attention, for example, might differ by virtue of your early experiences.

CONAN: Here's an email from Brad in Wenatchee, Washington. A friend of mine -were in Germany with the Air Force and we're trying to find Cologne Cathedral. The roads around that area are really odd, with a lot of tunnels and turnoffs. Well, we end up driving out on this nice, cobblestone street. We think we're okay until we start seeing outdoor café tables full of people on each side of us. Next thing we know, we're on a riverside walkway in our car with people looking at us like we are crazy. Luckily, we got out of there before the polizei came, but it made for a pretty eventful day.

And one of the things you point about, and in fact probably one of the ways you've guided yourself to the CBC Studio in Toronto today was looking up. And he could have looked up for the spire of Cologne Cathedral; you could have looked up to the C.N. Tower.

Dr. ELLARD: Exactly. Two things I noticed in that email. One is the description of winding routes and curves.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. ELLARD: And curves are things that we do not do well. When we - and what I mean by that is when we mentally represent spaces, when we mentally represent layouts of streets, we tend to straighten out curves in those mental maps. And so we ignore the gentle undulations in a road that we're walking, and that does not get factored into our mental map of space.

And then the other thing is, as you mentioned, losing sight of the sky. Whether or not there are landmarks, that does seem to exert an effect. And I think that probably what's happening there is that even when people are not necessarily explicitly aware that they're doing it, I think that they are using sky light patterns to some extent to find their way. So it's a very common experience.

People talk about this if you're a tourist in a city that has a subway, for example. You become quite lost when you're below ground. And come above ground, take a few glimpses, and you have the sense that you've found your bearings. There's a wonderful story, actually, that involves the building that I'm sitting in right now, which is not the most navigable interior that I've ever seen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's a gigantic building, yes.

Dr. ELLARD: It's a gigantic building and it's got lots of curves, and it's got lots of little cubbyholes and hideaways. And there was a very well-known broadcaster in Canada named Peter Gzowski - in fact, there's a huge picture of him sitting beside me.

And I heard a story related to me the other day about him, and he said that there were certain places in this building that he could not find his way to from one place to another.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. ELLARD: He had to actually leave the building and come back in another door in order to find his way. And again, I think there's something special about sky.

CONAN: We're talking with Colin Ellard about his new book, "You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall."

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Kate in Columbus, Ohio. How come we turn down the radio when we're trying to navigate while driving? Do senses interfere with one another?

Dr. ELLARD: Oh, terrific question. And that connects again with the, I think, the idea of mind-wandering. And yes, it may not necessarily be the case of the senses interfering with one another. But certainly, if we have to deal with too much information at once, then it's going to make us more likely to leave the here and now, to lose contact with what it is that we should be paying attention to.

And so radios, cell phones, all kinds of electronic devices, when we're using them as we're walking or driving from place to place, tend to take us away from the here and now and make it more likely that we'll get lost.

So, yeah, turning down the radio, focusing your attention on what you should be focusing your attention on, is a good strategy to help you avoid becoming lost.

CONAN: Only in that one context are you allowed to turn down the radio. Let's see if we can get another caller.

Dr. ELLARD: Exactly.

CONAN: Christine is with us from Boston.

Christine (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CHRISTINE: Well, I sailed from Mexico to the Marquesas. And a week before we arrived in the Marquesas on our 134-foot brigantine with a bunch of students doing oceanographic research, the captain covered the compass and the GPS. And we had to use Polynesian navigation to get our way to the islands.

CONAN: And I'm just guesstimating, that's about 2,000 miles.

CHRISTINE: Yeah. A little - 3,000, but for only one week before we got there…

CONAN: Well, I would have gotten lost then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHRISTINE: …Polynesian navigation, which is the stars and the wind and wave direction and the sun.

CONAN: It's one of the things that Colin Ellard writes about a lot in his book, the way the Polynesian navigators were able to use systems that seem invisible to us, these trackless wastes of the ocean to navigate from one island to another, looking at birds and, as you mentioned, wave patterns and of course the stars and the sun and all those other rhythms that seem lost to modern man, unless they are very talented and experienced navigators.

Thanks very much for the call, Christine.

CHRISTINE: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And we'll continue talking about navigation and why we're so good at it technologically and so bad at it in other respects, certainly compared to other animals. Our guest, again ,is Colin Ellard. His book is "You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall." Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Getting lost, as we're learning, is a particularly human experience. Colin Ellard is our guide. He researches why and how we get lost, and why many other species don't. His book is titled "You Are Here." We've posted an excerpt on our Web site. You can read about his encounter with a black bear while trekking through the woods. It's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can also catch Colin Ellard tomorrow morning on NPR. He'll be a guest on MORNING EDITION.

If you'd like to talk with him about getting lost, give us a call: 800-989-8255. We also have an email challenge going. Tell us your story about getting lost and found. The email address is talk@npr.org.

And Colin Ellard, I wanted to ask you about some of the artificial systems that we humans have devised to navigate ourselves and our robots around the world and how, in some cases, they mimic or are analogs to systems that various animals use. For example, the way you describe bees and their orientation flights seemingly taking pictures of various way-points on their way to whatever flower it is they're finding, it seems very similar to the old terrain comparison maps that were in old cruise missiles.

Dr. ELLARD: Yeah. That's a really interesting thought. The work that's been done on bee navigation and the orientation flights, and also the method of using what are called look-backs - where bees and wasps will turn around during a flight, and take what seems to be something very much like a snapshot of the terrain - do conjure memories of those kinds of artificial systems for navigation.

And in fact, one of the best-known bee researchers, a fellow named Srinivasan(ph) in Australia, also does research on autonomous robotics and designs - helps to design vehicles that are explicitly based on some of the mechanism that are used in bees.

CONAN: The other is, of course, the inertial guidance system using accelerometers and gyroscopes that we're familiar with from ballistic missiles. You say there's a very close analogy inside the human ear.

Dr. ELLARD: Yes. Inside the human ear, we have a system of tubes which contain fluid. And imbedded within the fluid are small pieces of basically, limestone. And the way that the system works is that as you - as your head moves from place to place, if there are changes in the velocity of movements, so either increases or decreases in velocity, those small pieces of limestone will move within the fluid relative to their position in the vestibular system.

And those movements actually cause the bending of very fine hairs, or cilia, in the vestibular system. And those bending movements can send signals to the brain, which we can to some extent use to kind of deconstruct patterns of our movements. And that kind of mechanism is, again, very similar to the kinds of inertial guidance systems that might be used in things like missiles.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bruce in Denver. Has anyone looked into the correlation between right-brain dominance and decent navigation skills? I pilot a deep sea submarine and the displays we have in the submersible have helped me to develop improved spatial awareness. But I'm wondering how that might be affected by how people actually use their brains subconsciously.

Dr. ELLARD: Interesting question. I can't think of any strong evidence off the top of my head that might suggest that differences in laterality might factor into sense of direction. There are some suggestions that the two hemispheres of the brain might be specialized in different ways for different aspects of, for example, the visual sense that might be involved in navigation. So there is some basis for thinking that there might be those kinds of influences. But I couldn't really point to any particular set of experiments that would say, yes, right-brain people are more or less likely to way-find.

CONAN: Let's talk with Danny. Danny calling from Philadelphia.

DANNY (Caller): Hi there.


DANNY: Hi. My comment is just in regards to our dependence on technology and GPS, Google Maps, that sort of thing. I'm living in Philadelphia at the moment. I'm new to the area, so it's been interesting, I'm trying to get accustomed to the city. And in the recent past, I've been across Europe and to various other cities, and I didn't trust any technology. I just kind of got a plain-Jane map and figured out my way throughout the city.

And I'm doing it the same way through Philadelphia. And I find myself remembering so much more about the city and my sense of direction inside the city. When I'm back there again, it's so much more vivid rather than just relying on right, left, go forward, you know, et cetera. I just think it's really interesting.

CONAN: It's interesting. You write about this a lot in the book and describe what one side calls the nature deficit disorder that we're all experiencing.

Dr. ELLARD: Yeah. The different ways that GPS can be used is something that quite fascinates me. And I think Danny's description of his level of immersion, if you like, in an environment being perhaps greater when he leaves the GPS at home is something that you hear quite commonly. People worry that our over-reliance on GPS is going to tune us out of paying attention to our surroundings.

I think that there's another way of looking at how GPS can be used, though. There's some marvelous examples of ways that we can develop what you might refer to as a playful relationship with space using GPS technology. One of the best examples is, I guess I could call it almost a sport, something called geo-caching.

Geocaching is a kind of scavenger hunt that's conducted using a GPS. So the idea is that you can be given a latitude and longitude, and then go off into the real world to go look for a treasure, which can be a very tiny thing. It can be a box within coins in it or a small toy or something like that.

And I began geo-caching with my children, in fact, as a way of trying to reengage them with outdoor spaces. One of the concerns that I had that I think I share with a lot of people is that our kids are, we know, very turned on by technology. There's a risk that they could engage in what we might call a lot of screen-based behavior ranging from television to computer games.

CONAN: Computer games, yeah.

Dr. ELLARD: And my idea was that with something like geo-caching or some other kind of location-based gaming, you can tie into, tap into that interest in technology, but at the same time encourage your children to be outside engaging with real places and, yes, having contact with nature.

So this idea of a nature deficit disorder, Neal, is - this is by no means an idea that originated with me in this book. But it's an increasing area of concern that children who don't spend enough time in natural environments may, over long periods of time, be developing some inabilities to attend that would be almost akin to something like attention deficit disorder.

So there is increased attention to the problem of how we turn our children outwards to the world, put them in nature, and also let them have fun. And I think geo-caching is one way that we can do it. So I think the moral is that it's usually not the technology that is either good or evil, if I can cast it that way, but it's often the use of the technology.

So we can take GPS, where there's this risk that we might turn away from space and we can tune it. We can think of it, we can reconfigure it and think of it in a different way to engage children in this playful relationship with space that could actually have exactly the opposite effect. So it's not the technology, it's the use of the technology that we should think about.

CONAN: And Danny, you might want to think that that plain Jane map that you've been using - well, it's actually a pretty sophisticated piece of technology on its own. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call and good luck in Philly.

DANNY: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's - here's an email we have from Katie in Portland: My father was famous for his extraordinary map sense. He always seemed to know where he was in relation to landmarks and could return to a place he'd been 10 years before.

But one day when he was supposed to pick me up for dinner, he was late and finally called me from his home and asked me for my address. He had driven around and by it several times without finding it. When he arrived, we realized that the six-foot wall in front of my building had been completely denuded of 20 years of ivy. That's when I realized that a large part of his ability was an exceptional visual memory. And yes, you write in the book we are exceptionally visual creatures.

Dr. ELLARD: Yes. That's a fantastic story. That's - the gentleman with the exceptional way-finding skill sounds as though he was using techniques that would be very similar to the techniques used by way-finding cultures thousands of years ago that we talked about a little while ago. One of the hallmarks of those methods is an exquisite attention to visual detail. And some people have learned to cultivate that through life and it transfers into - translates into exceptional way-finding skills.

So the - what happened where the vegetation was denuded or the wall was denuded sounds very much like some of the classic experiments that were conducted in animal behavior that demonstrated that animals like digger wasps were using visual landmarks to find their way to nest entrances. By changing the appearance of the landmarks, it's possible to change the behavior of the wasp.

So this is a nice kind of anecdotal piece of evidence to suggest that exactly the same kind of thing was happening in this fellow with the exceptional abilities.

CONAN: Email from Cathy in South Dakota with a suggestion. If anyone who designs subway systems is listening, could you please embed in the sidewalk at each subway exit a north, south, east, west star symbol so those of us from the prairie who come to the big city can find our way. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is John. John calling from San Jose.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. I normally have a very good sense of direction. And I was doing a work stint in Tokyo back in the '90s and I had to meet some friends at a club in Shibuya, a suburb that I'd never been to before. And they drew me a map and I got off the train station and the map was just completely wrong. And I had to ask my way to this club in my very broken Japanese. And what I found was that no one would answer me. And I attribute it to the people in that culture not wanting to embarrass you because they know I wouldn't be able to understand their directions.

But what I found was that the drunks - the drunk businessmen, you know, on their way home, had no such inhibition, only their directions were way off. They would gesticulate in a variety of directions. And I had to form a kind of statistical representation of their, you know, the prevalent directions that the different drunks would point. And after asking enough of them, I just - I've homed in on it and finally found my way there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Storytelling as a way to guidance, yes.

JOHN: Yeah.

Dr. ELLARD: That's a fascinating example of swarm intelligence, like none that I have ever heard before. I'm not sure that there's a research proposal there, but it's an amazing story. And interesting that there would be those cultural differences in direction giving and taking. I haven't heard anything like that before.

CONAN: John, thank you very much for the call.

And finally, we're talking with Colin Ellard. His book is "Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall."

Dan in Washington, D.C. emails: Are malls not designed to make it easier for us to get lost? I remember watching an interview with an architect who said malls insert odd angles to keep shoppers away from exits and close to ever more stores.

Dr. ELLARD: Yes. That's a fascinating area, the construction of spaces to exert social control. And that is something that we definitely see in play in retail environments. It's something that we also see in play big time in casinos. And that's something that I talk about in the book where there is, again, there's a vested interest from the owner of the building in keeping you in their space and engaged for as long as possible, ideally until your pockets are empty.

And it may not be the same - to the same degree in a shopping mall but the same kinds of principles might apply. So yes, spaces aren't always designed to make way-finding easy. That's absolutely true.

CONAN: Colin Ellard, we hope you can find your way out of the CBC building there in Toronto and get on your way home. We appreciate your time today.

Dr. ELLARD: Thank you. You're welcome. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Colin Ellard joined us from the CBC Studios in Toronto. Again, his book is "You Are Here." Well, where you are is listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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