Finding Our Way in the World

Hiawatha BrayHiawatha Bray
By Deborah Blagg

What do sea turtles, pulsars, shantytowns, and a seahorse-shaped section of the brain have in common? As came to light during a fall 2014 Radcliffe science symposium that attracted an eclectic assembly of academics and practitioners, multidisciplinary research on these and other topics is beginning to spark insights into how humans and other creatures find their way in the world.

The topic of navigation grabbed international headlines last year when the physiologists Edvard I. Moser, May-Britt Moser, and John O’Keefe won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for research they had conducted on the brain’s navigation system. In academia, however, the topic has never found a natural home. As Radcliffe’s Dean Lizabeth Cohen noted in her symposium introduction, “There are no departments of way-finding, professors of navigation, or courses on the revolutionary impact of the compass.”

Nevertheless, as scholars in fields such as anthropology, physics, astronomy, biology, architecture, oceanography, and psychology have discovered, in the words of John Huth—Harvard’s Donner Professor of Science, a faculty codirector of science in Radcliffe’s Academic Ventures program, and the symposium organizer—“navigation is a rubric under which a lot of science and empiricism can be taught.”

The author of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way (Belknap Press, 2013), Huth began studying navigation in earnest in 2003, after a kayaking experience in thick fog tested his knowledge of natural positioning cues.

The University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire became interested in navigation through research on interrelated brain functions. “As it turns out,” she said during a session on neuroscience and cognitive psychology, “areas of the brain used in navigation are also involved in autobiographical memory, imagination, and planning functions. So research on navigation has important implications for understanding cognitive deficits due to issues such as Alzheimer’s or stroke.”

In a groundbreaking study, Maguire used magnetic resonance imaging to document brain changes in novice London taxi drivers as they gradually became master navigators of the city’s challenging tangle of throughways and back-alley shortcuts. One outcome of the research was to show that the drivers’ hippocampi (the seahorse-shaped part of the brain involved in both memory and navigation) grew in size to accommodate the increased navigational work, “countering previous assumptions about the lack of plasticity in adult brains.”

Yasser Roudi, a colleague of the Nobel laureates Edvard and May-Britt Moser at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, talked about the types of neural cells—head directional, place, grid, conjunctive, and border—that are associated with navigation in the mammalian brain. Although this discovery provides new insights into the brain’s ability to perform complex cognitive functions, Roudi emphasized, “there are just starting to be answers to many of the questions” in this evolving field.

John Huth, who organized the symposium, holds up a "stick chart"--called a wapepe--used by novice navigators in the Marshall Islands to learn the craft by discerning ocean swell patterns.John Huth, who organized the symposium, holds up a "stick chart"--called a wapepe--used by novice navigators in the Marshall Islands to learn the craft by discerning ocean swell patterns.Eleanor MaguireEleanor Maguire
During lunch, symposium guests attended a poster session. Here the postdoctoral fellow Orit Peleg, advised by L. Mahadevan RI '15, presents her work about dung beetle navigation.During lunch, symposium guests attended a poster session. Here the postdoctoral fellow Orit Peleg, advised by L. Mahadevan RI '15, presents her work about dung beetle navigation.Robert KoesterRobert Koester
George HobbsGeorge HobbsParticipants were able to test their way-finding abilities with a lunchtime activity   organized by the New England Orienteering Club.Participants were able to test their way-finding abilities with a lunchtime activity organized by the New England Orienteering Club.

Super-Navigators and Lost Causes

Shifting from a cellular perspective to a bird’s-eye view, Susanne Åkesson talked about research on the navigational skills of animals such as songbirds, albatrosses, turtles, and insects. A professor of animal ecology at the Center for Animal Movement Research at Lund University, in Sweden, Åkesson uses experiments, tracking, and telemetry to study migratory animals that find their way across sometimes tremendous distances, often relying on instincts that are innate rather than learned.

Research gathered from satellite tags placed on young albatrosses at their subantarctic breeding grounds, for instance, shows that fledglings invariably wait for prevailing winds to shift to the southwest before embarking on their first migratory flight—without the example of parents, who depart well before they can fly. “Somewhere in the program,” Åkesson said, “they know which environmental situations will benefit their northeast migration.”

Åkesson cited impressive navigational feats of many other animals, such as young loggerhead turtles—who embark on 8,000-mile migrations in the North Atlantic, returning to their breeding grounds seven to eight years later—and common swifts, birds that annually cover a distance equal to seven trips around the globe, staying airborne and on course even while asleep. Improved technology is helping to unlock clues to animals’ engagement with phenomena such as air and ocean currents that may explain their migratory abilities.

As the directionally challenged among us well know, humans often lack sophisticated internal navigational abilities. Robert J. Koester has made a career out of successfully predicting the behavior of off-course humans. A technical instructor at the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the author of Lost Person Behavior: A Search and Rescue Guide on Where to Look—for Land, Air, and Water (dbS Productions, 2008), Koester is the driving force behind the International Search and Rescue Database (ISRID), which includes information from more than 50,000 search and rescue incidents. ISRID has yielded six spatial models for finding lost subjects in different scenarios, tools that can save valuable time in tense situations. Using these models, Koester explained, “we can, for example, say that in temperate environments, 50 percent of lost subjects with dementia will be found within 15 meters of a road or a trail.”

Uncharted Territories

The Kent State University cultural anthropologist Richard Feinberg is among a growing number of scholars and indigenous Pacific Islanders interested in making sense of way-finding techniques that predate databases, maps, compasses, sextants, and global positioning systems (GPS) by hundreds of years. Beginning in the 1970s, Feinberg said, long experimental trips guided by Pacific Island master navigators “proved it is possible to make voyages across the open sea, out of sight of land, without instruments, with a high degree of accuracy.” These excursions and other research described by Feinberg are providing valuable information about the “navigational tool kit” Pacific Islanders have relied on for centuries, which includes dead reckoning, knowledge of wind and ocean currents, avian feeding and flight patterns, the ability to detect when waves have been deflected from land, celestial navigation, and handmade wind and star compasses.

Research suggests that the navigational tool kit of future intergalactic travelers will include familiarity with the properties of pulsars—small, super-dense remnants of exploded stars that emit radio waves across space at relatively constant intervals. The astrophysicist George Hobbs and his colleagues at CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, in Australia, believe that just as today’s global positioning systems rely on coordinates transmitted from Earth-orbiting satellites, vehicles traveling in deep space—well out of range of Earth’s GPS tracking—will be able to find their way by triangulating signals from pulsars. Testing this theory on a simulated spacecraft journey from Earth to Mars, Hobbs has been able to determine the craft’s location within 10 kilometers. “For deep space navigation,” he asserted, “this technique will work.”

Bringing symposium participants back down to earth, the Boston Globe reporter Hiawatha Bray, the author of You Are Here (Basic Books, 2014), talked about a relatively straightforward navigation problem that is just beginning to be addressed. In the poor urban areas of many emerging nations, he noted, millions of people are “lost” because they don’t have a street address. “Without an address,” Bray asked, “how do you register to vote, receive mail, or establish a bank account?” How, in a city like Monrovia, Liberia, can health officials track the spread of Ebola?

Emerging nations are currently developing solutions to this problem with the help of high-tech companies that use Google Maps, specialized software, and neighborhood canvassers to assign street addresses to even the humblest residential structures. While “we get wowed” by the concept of interstellar navigation, Bray observed, “something as basic as being able to say ‘This is where you can find me’ can change a person’s life.”


Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

Photos by Tony Rinaldo

Search Year: 
2015