Posts Tagged ‘M.R. O’Connor’


January 21, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a new book by M.R. O’Connor. The subtitle is “The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World.” HM and his spouse enjoy cruising. One looks out at the vast ocean with nothing else in sight. With today’s geopositioning systems it is obvious how ships navigate these waters, even at night and in bad weather. For a long time sextants were needed for navigation. The primary use of a sextant is to measure the angle between an astronomical object and the horizon for the purposes of celestial navigation.

We enjoy cruising the Caribbean islands and visiting these islands, which are populated and have been populated for many hundreds of years. HM’s question is how did people in primitive boats manage to navigate to these islands, and for entire groups of people to relocate. There is nothing special about the Caribbean here. There are islands all over the Earth to which people managed to navigate and resettle. Wayfinding explains how they managed to do so. It turns out that people use not only the stars, but the movement of the sun through the day, sea currents, and the wind to navigate. These signs are very subtle and Wayfinding does not provide a guide as to how to do this. Rather it documents that humans did indeed learn to read and understand these subtle cues.

It is not only on the seas and oceans have humans been able to learn subtle environmental cues to navigate. There is a chapter on the Arctic and on how natives are able to read the subtle cues in the ice to navigate. Even today with GPS’s being able to provide directions, expert wayfarers can see signs that there may be trouble ahead regarding unsafe ice, which are not available from the GPS.

There also is a section on the aborigines in Australia. Here there are vast landscapes, which are barren to the uninitiated, but which provide information to those who know how to read it. They have developed what the author names dreamtime cartography. They form stories, dreams if you will, that describe the paths on trips to different locations.

Ms. O’Connor makes the argument that it is navigation that made us human and gave us the ability to develop advanced civilizations. She cites a portion from Carlo Ginzburg’s book Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method: Man has been a hunter for thousands of years. In the course of countless chases he learned to reconstruct the shapes and movements of his invisible prey from tracks on the ground, broken branches, excrement, tufts of hair, entailed feather, stagnating odors. He learned to sniff out, record, interpret, and classify such infinitesimal traces as tails of spittle, He learned how to execute complex mental operations with lightning speed, in the depth of a forest or in a prairie with its hidden dangers.”

To be sure, these are humble beginnings. But they are the beginnings of advanced thinking that continue to advance to where we are today. But there have been casualties. If any of us who are not hunters were left to survive for ourselves in the woods, most of us would likely fail.

Reasons to Build a Healthy Hippocampus

June 8, 2019

This post is inspired by an article by M.R. O’Connor in the 6 June 2019 issue of the Washington Post titled, “Here’s what gets lost when we rely on GPS.” The article cites a study published in Nature Communications in 2017 where researchers asked participants to navigate a virtual simulation of London’s Soho neighborhood and monitored their brain activity, specifically the hippocampus, which, as health memory blog readers know, is integral to spatial navigation. Amir-Honayoun Javadi, one of the study’s authors said, “The hippocampus makes an internal map of the environment and this map becomes active when you are engaged in navigating and not using GPS.”

The hippocampus is highly important. It allows us to orient in space and know where we are by creating cognitive maps. It allows us to both store and retrieve personal memories of experience. Neuroscientists believe the hippocampus believes give us the ability to imagine the future. Again this is something healthy memory blog readers should know and one of the principle purposes of memory is for time travel so we can travel back in time to review our past, so we can think of possible actions we can take in the future.

Research has long shown that the hippocampus changes as a function of learning. Again healthy memory blog readers should remember the study of London taxi drivers who have greater gray-matter volume in the hippocampus due to memorizing the city’s labyrinthine streets. Atrophy in the hippocampus is linked to devastating conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s disease. Stress and depression dampen neurogenesis—the growth of new neurons —in the hippocampal circuit.

Javadi said the conclusions he draws from recent research is that “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink”

Neuroscientist Veronique Bohbot has found that using spatial-memory strategies for navigation correlates with increased gray matter in the hippocampus at any age. She thinks that interventions focused on improving spatial memory by exercising the hippocampus—paying attention to the spatial relationships of places in our environment—might help offset age-related cognitive impairments or even neurodegenerative diseases.

She continues, “If we are paying attention to our environments, we re stimulating our hippocampus, and a bigger hippocampus seems to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease. When we get lost , it activates the hippocampus, it gets us completely out of the habit mode. Getting lost is good.” It can be a good thing if done safely.

M.R. O’Connor writes, “Saturated with devices, children today might grow up to see navigation from memory or a paper map as anachronistic as rote memorization or typewriting. But for them especially, independent navigation and the freedom to explore are vital to acquiring spatial knowledge that may improve hippocampal function. Turning off the GPS and teaching them navigational skills could have enormous cognitive benefits later in life.”

M.R. O’Connor concludes the article, “Over the past four years, I’ve spoken with master navigators from different cultures who show me that performing navigation is a powerful form of engagement with the environment that can inspire a greater sense of stewardship. Finding our way on our own—using perception, empirical observation and problem solving skills—forces us to attune ourselves to the outside world. And by turning our attention to the physical landscape that sustains and connects us, we can nourish “topophilia,” a sense of attachment and love for space. You’ll never get that from waiting for a satellite to tell you how to find a shortcut.”