M.R. O'Connor

GPS and the Human Journey

Air Date: June 10, 2019

Science journalist M.R. O’Connor discusses her new book “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World.”


I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Maura O’Connor, a journalist who writes about the politics and ethics of science, technology and conservation. A former Knight Science MIT journalism fellow, O’Connor’s work has appeared online in Slate and Foreign Policy in the New Yorker, Harpers, Undark, with investigations covering the disappearances and Sri Lanka’s civil war, global agriculture trade in Haiti and American development enterprises in Afghanistan. Now her new book is “Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World.” It’s an exploration of navigation traditions, neuroscience, and the diversity of human relationships to space, time and memory, and the distinction between our species and other species and how they collectively and respectively navigate our earth and world. Maura, a pleasure to have you here, thanks for being here.

O’CONNOR: Great to be here. Thank you.

HEFFNER: What’s made you stumble on this topic of navigation and how we uniquely navigate the world?

O’CONNOR: Well, I like virtually everybody else, like had a smart phone that had GPS in it. I got my first iPhone in 2008 when I was a grad student here in New York and I was getting sent as a stringer, I worked as a stringer for newspapers and would get sent to neighborhoods I’d never been to. And you know, it’s an incredibly powerful tool. It’s amazing to be able to just put in where you need to go and be told how to get there. So I adapted to it very quickly and it became the way that I found my way around. But skip forward about seven or eight years and I was in a very rural part of New Mexico and I decided with my partner to go visit a hot spring and we put in, you know, to our GPS a location, it came up, they said, okay, this is where we go.

So we’re driving down dirt roads and getting further and further away from any houses and finally realized that we were approaching what looked like a giant ravine. And it turned out that we stopped the car, we got out, we had come to the banks of the Rio Grande River and the GPS was telling us that it was like this hot springs at the bottom of 100-foot cliff. So, you know, that was the first time that I think I stepped back and I was like, this is really interesting that we have so much faith in this device to tell us where to go, even when logic and reality and you know, sort of would say that this doesn’t really make sense. And I think, you know, I started coming across a lot of news articles of people who had similar experiences and some of them are funny and some of them are actually quite tragic where you just see these sort of fault lines between the faith that we put in our technological devices and then the are sort of lack of skill or local knowledge and how those two things can really conspired and create massive problems. So that was the seed in my own experience that made me think like, what is going on when we navigate? And as a science journalist, I started to realize there’s a pretty interesting story there.

HEFFNER: Did you make it to your destination of the hot springs?

O’CONNOR: We did, but what we, we left,

HEFFNER: Ojo Caliente?

O’CONNOR: And, no it wasn’t, I can’t even remember now because it was a pretty small, but it was near Taos, so not far. But what ended up happening was we retreated and then the next day we asked somebody where it was. That’s how we found it. So, you know, that would have been a very common way to get somewhere you know, 10, 15 years ago. But it’s almost now we, it doesn’t occur to us that that’s a very effective way to find out how to get somewhere is ask someone who knows, who grew up there and, you know, engage.

HEFFNER: How has that affected our humanity to be in this hyper-connected mobility space?

O’CONNOR: I think it’s almost an unanswered question right now because I think mine would be the first generation that has had the experience of both. We didn’t grow up with smartphones, but now we are completely dependent on them. And so it will be interesting to see how children today, what strategies they’re using to find their way and whether GPS will be the way that they know how to get from A to B. I think what’s really fascinating to me about the topic of navigation and sort of cultural anthropology is this fact that there’s so much cultural diversity in the way that people find their way from A to B in different cultures.

And so if I can just sort of really generalize, in the West, it does seem like cartography is incredibly important and, but it wasn’t always that way. So if you sort of go back far enough, you can, before the cartographic revolution in say like the 17th century, you could see that at one point, humans were always using environmental cues. They always had to turn outwards and to use the natural world, to use landmarks present in the landscape, to find their way to use the sun to orient or the stars or to understand wind direction, and different landscapes and especially challenging landscapes created different systems and strategies for navigating, and different cultural traditions in which skills and knowledge about, how to use the environment could be passed down from one generation to another in places where survival depends on those skills say in, in society is that depending on hunting. And in challenging landscapes that are very dynamic or changing, or harsh conditions, these navigation skills would require great mastery and perhaps decades in order to be highly, you know, sufficient and self-dependent and able to carry them out day in and day out.

HEFFNER: And you don’t learn those skills by just logging on to your Google Maps App and seeing that there’s an ocean in front of you. Where looking at the compass, it is enormously helpful in orienting yourself in the world. Psychologically it is empowering just by its very existence in the way that you needed certain skills to be empowered in earlier decades or centuries.

O’CONNOR: Yes. I think there is that sense that we, there is a lot of conversation happening today around our reliance on devices and technologies in our lives and, the question of what happens to the skills that were once required of us when we like to say, you know, have outsourced our navigation skills to a device. That question is really interesting to me, and from a neuroscience perspective, but also from that sense of our engagement with the world outside of our heads and our sense of autonomy and self-reliance and freedom. And I think…

HEFFNER: Talk about the neuroscience, the impact on our psyches and our neuroscience of modern navigation relative to older schools.

O’CONNOR: Sure. Sure. I mean, I think GPS is and is one of the first devices that has afforded us this ability to almost not have to engage with the environment directly at all.

If you think about instruments like a sextant, it’s still requires you to understand something about the movement of celestial phenomenon in the sky over time.

HEFFNER: And how does that affect the chemicals, the chemical properties of what’s going on here in our brains.

O’CONNOR: So I think there is a very interesting story about neuroscience in our brain…


O’CONNOR: And the way that a device can affect our perception of the landscape and the environment but that, those studies are very nascent. So what we do know so far is that there’s an interesting phenomenon: if you are using your turn-by-turn directions on your sat-nav device, so the function that says turn right and turn left and not just the map function, it does seem that the part of our brain that is sort of locus of navigation called the hippocampus sort of loses interest in new information from the environment.

So it’s almost just switched, switched off. And the study that’s showing that in London just came out a couple of years ago and there’s other studies that show if you’re using that function while driving your car, for instance and then you’re asked to recreate your route or details from the scenery that you passed on your way. People who are using their sat-nav devices and the turn-by-turn functions are going to recreate those with a lot less richness and vividness. And so you do see that our perception is altered when we’re using these devices. I cannot speak to, and I don’t think we know yet of very long-term consequences of total reliance on our devices, but we can definitely say that it changes perhaps and influences the way we see the world.

HEFFNER: Were those studies on going prior to the creation of WAZE and Google Maps, that is studying how cartography or the earlier map makers and the influence of map making on generations, you know, two centuries of American and global citizens, how that affected our psychology and our neuroscience. Were there any studies kind of predating the tech revolution that gave insight into this same question?

O’CONNOR: I think it’s a totally fascinating question and I wish there were more, I think, in my own research, what I found was a kind of emergence of interest from psychology, in say around the 1930s and such, in how humans in human perception. And then you see also some really interesting studies in psychology as well that are using rats and this classic kind of model of using a rat through a maze to understand all kinds of different questions. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that you see really fascinating studies happening about neuroscience and navigation, in particular John O’Keefe’s discovery of place cells in the hippocampus, which he later won the Nobel prize for. And that’s when you start seeing incredible studies showing how the hippocampus in our brains is populated with different kinds of cells that are firing, so to speak, as we move through space and creating the so-called cognitive map in the brain.

And what’s so interesting about the hippocampus is it’s not just responsible for how we navigate, but it’s also the locus of what’s called episodic memory. So it’s our memory of past events. It’s when you think of going on a trip with your grandfather and you’re thinking about that and you’re recreating in your brain, that’s your hippocampus activating. Not only that, it’s the part of our brain that allows us to sort of imagine a future, to predict the future and to project ourselves into the future. So it’s this very almost critical part of our brains that helps us to organize time. Our sense of identity as a person who existed in the past is present here and now and then will exist into the future. And that connection between memory and navigation, you start seeing that research really taking place in the seventies and eighties, and today there’s even more interesting stuff happening in that field.

HEFFNER: You teach us about navigation from the point of view of scholars who studied it, but also from a kind of new-fangled idea of Freud and Sherlock Holmes and William James, they all have some relevance to how we navigate as human beings and the storytelling of that navigation. I thought you might give our viewers a sense of that from maybe one or more of your favorite navigators in an atypical sense, not a, I mean you can talk about Vasco da Gama or an explorer, but you also think about it in terms of psychiatry and psychology and philosophy.

O’CONNOR: Yeah. I think what’s so interesting is that humans are, it seems like the species that has used memory to the greatest extent in the task of navigation. And that’s what really I think makes us different from how other species navigate. It’s not that no other species uses memory, but memory is so intertwined to how we find our way. And as I was describing before, this ability to locate ourselves in the past and the present and the future, is sort of a narrative device. So there are some scholars that I was able to talk to or to research in the course of writing the book who talk about this narrative faculty as being very centric to our success as a species here on earth. And it’s a storytelling faculty in a sense. So I talk a lot in the book about the similarity between different cultures who have used the storytelling faculty to their advantage to use stories almost as mnemonic devices to help them find their way in very diverse and challenging landscapes.

And the best example of that is, I think in Australia, using what are known as dreaming tracks or song lines and this is an amazingly sophisticated system for not just incorporating law and story and ecological information, but also navigational information. And to go back to those individuals that you were speaking about, there are some scholars who look at Sherlock Holmes and they look at Sigmund Freud and they say, well, what are the talents needed in order to do what they do, and part of it is the ability to read signs. And so that also connects to this storytelling faculty and this ability to sort of create hypothesis in the head, in one’s mind, stories against which to test reality, which I think the argument is that that’s essentially what, you know, Freud was doing,

HEFFNER: Right. And James’ warning about the psychologist fallacy.

O’CONNOR: And bringing up William James because he was extremely influential on a psychologist by the name of James Gibson who wrote really wonderful materials on navigation and this idea of, of wayfinding and studied perception for pretty much until the 1970s when he passed.

And, but James was talking about this thing called the psychologist fallacy, which is how do we understand the mental processes that are occurring in our brain when we do something like navigate. And our instinct is to reach for metaphors that can help us to understand. So for instance, these days we not only hear about the cognitive map, but we hear about the GPS and the brain. Well, is that really the way to understand what’s happening? Is there a mechanistic process that’s occurring, as we perceive space and move through it? Or is that just the way when we step back to analyze it, that’s just seemingly the best metaphor we have to try and reach for an explanation. So, you know, I cover this debate in the book about whether there really is a cognitive map and, James Gibson, the psychologist I mentioned before, really argued that there wasn’t, so, you know, I think I use that term, but it’s quite fascinating to step back and think, well, what really is happening and the kind of primacy of that experience of navigating and perceiving space. You know, maybe it’s quite different from how we think of it. Maybe it’s not like a computer. Maybe it’s not like a GPS. Maybe it’s something much more mysterious.

HEFFNER: Innate cognitive processes produce metaphors and models that are derived from our inherent experience, our natural experience. So, you know, yes, the metaphors and models it can be an extrapolation. They can be cultivated based on decades and decades of human progress but I question, you know whether or not they are innate. I would say they have the capacity to be innate.

O’CONNOR: Right. I think when you look at how culturally relative the different strategies are for navigating, that’s when it becomes very interesting to look at a term like the cognitive map. Well, maps aren’t universal to all cultures, right?

HEFFNER: Or the human genome.

O’CONNOR: Right. Yeah. It’s a, it’s a particular historical moment that happened in a particular place. You know, that maps emerged from that. And so now we, you know, particularly me, when I started to research this topic, it was shocking to me to consider how one would find their way without a map. Like I actually hadn’t really thought about this, it’s really very naive. So then that’s where it becomes, you know, do we really have a cognitive map or how we, you know, do we live in a culture that cherishes the map to such an extent that we actually have to really struggle to find other ways of thinking about …

HEFFNER: There have been some good movies on that “Castaway,” “Dances with Wolves.” I mean there happen to be some movies on that subject.

O’CONNOR: I should go back and revisit those.

HEFFNER: So, in conclusion in the minutes we have left, I wanted you to explain, or maybe guess as to the science and mystery of navigation beyond 2019. So we expected according to popular culture there to be flying cars by now. You mentioned the significance or potential significance of autonomous vehicles.

O’CONNOR: I do conclude the book with a couple of chapters that are talking about the future and kind of trying to step back and create for some perspective, some historical perspective about how quickly things have changed. You know, even in the last 100 years and the, the effect that technology has had, not just on how we get from A to B but on our very sense of what space and time is and its significance to our day to day lives. So I speak about autonomous vehicles and also technologies that are not here yet but are in development like Hyperloop One which you know, will allow us to go from LA to San Francisco in 30 minutes or there’s something else I heard about the other day, a BFR that’s even more shockingly fast.

And I think what it seems like, is if we believe the sort of tech industry that things are inevitably going to head this way. And I have a lot of questions and skepticism about that. But if so, then it could be that the conditions of our lives in the next 10, 20, 30 years would require us to navigate a lot less. And so my interest is in what would that mean for our sense of individual autonomy and freedom and self reliance if we are always allowing a computer algorithm to determine what is the best and fastest route to wherever we want to go. But that algorithm is only relying on places that are already mapped or the better-mapped places. How would that change our relationship to the landscape and where our attention is going to be put? Will we be just watching more Harry Potter movies, you know, rather than sort of engaging with reality outside of our own sort of individualness?

So I think there are some really fascinating kind of philosophical questions that one can ask about the future. And that’s really what I was trying to do.

HEFFNER: By navigating less, you mean less touching the landscape and being connected to your environment. That’s what you meant, mean by that.

O’CONNOR: I mean that if we are always being piloted from one place to another shuttled, so to speak, and our cars or even shuttling us, you know, and we’re not actually responsible for the task or skills of deciding the route that will get us there and thinking about the time of day and, you know all the different factors that come into us wayfinding. I mean, in a quite literal sense, we may not be tasked with this very much in the future if this, you know, world of full autonomy really does come to pass. And I think, I think, I’m not saying that everybody should put their GPS aside and not worry about time and not worry about efficiency but I do think that there is a sense that the conditions of our lives are becoming more and more commoditized, that there’s an emphasis on saving time and maximum efficiency to the point that travel has really changed that experience of travel and what it means to go under your own power and what you encounter along the way. And I have a quote in the book from a woman who founded the Society of Woman Geographers in 1925 and 50 years later she’s speaking to the members and she says, you know, I do wonder whether your journeys that are taken under plane and you know at such rapid speed could be as fascinating as when we had to use, you know, horseback and camel and on foot to get to these places. So I guess what I’m pointing to is the possibility that the journey is significant and the conditions of that journey matter. And it’s not just about how fast we can get somewhere.

HEFFNER: I suppose the consequence of what you’re describing today in America is so called flyover country in effect, right? As climate change affects the way coastal communities are existing, or not existing, the possibility of once again, recollecting our American experience across the 50 states, across the landscape that there is some allure and promise in that, I don’t know if we will become journey men and women and wayfinding is the future, but, you, you do talk about it quite nostalgically …

O’CONNOR: I don’t think romanticism or nostalgia is particularly useful. So,

HEFFNER: It could be.

O’CONNOR: So I, that’s my inclination, but

HEFFNER: I’m not faulting you, I’m admiring it.

O’CONNOR: Yeah. I think one thing that was revolutionary for me is that I just think about how I’m getting from one place to another now in a way that I totally did not beforehand. And so there’s a way in which we can bring attention to this daily activity in a very simple way that actually we may not, it may not lead to us always deciding, you know what, I’m going to take 10 hours to get to where I need to go. And if I get lost, who, you know, who cares. I mean, that’s, but I think that there’s a way that whether we’re living in the city or whether we’re going backpacking out in rural areas, no matter where we are, we can engage our attention and experience to what’s happening around us and bring attention to that process and to, to think about it in our day-to-day lives. And so that’s a very elementary first step. There is a wealth of how-to literature out there about how if people really want to pursue, you know, looking at the night sky, understanding the movement of stars through the night sky, you know, understanding. And I think a lot of this book is about that sense of not just regaining an ability to find our way for ourselves, but empiricism, the idea that we can know things through our own direct observation. We don’t have to always pull out our phones and Google it in order to obtain knowledge.


O’CONNOR: In this world.

HEFFNER: And that discovery, we, we can no longer purchase Louisiana, right, and so the emphasis on outer space and Mars I think underscores the efficiency and capitalistic system in which we live today. And so renewing a commitment to what you’re trying to experience,

O’CONNOR: Right.

HEFFNER: Not the, you know. And also the moral and psychological end game of that.


HEFFNER: You know, so Maura, we’re out of time, but I appreciate you and writing this book “Wayfinding” Maura O’Connor. Thank you for being here.

O’CONNOR: Thank you so much. It was wonderful.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.