Have we lost our way? Navigation and wayfinding in the 21st century

Steph 丨凌姿
9 min readJan 17, 2021


Photo by Tabea Damm on Unsplash

For many of us, the joy of a journey is in the arrival at the destination. The space we pass through to get from A to B feels more like an obstacle than an experience. We’ve invented ever more efficient modes of transport — cars, submarines and supersonic jets — which have squished the world into a perfectly navigable piece of space rock where you can feasibly jump from one side to another in a matter of days.

The combination of compressing space and the changing way in which we navigate means that most of the time we are travelling, we haven’t got the foggiest clue where we actually are. The advent of global positioning systems (GPS — Google Maps, SatNav etc.) means we’re getting worse at learning routes and recognising scenes. It’s been suggested that using navigation systems when driving creates ‘inattention blindness, a failure to “see” elements in the environment’.

But while many humans seem to rely increasingly on GPS for navigation, other species get on exceptionally well without it. 40% of bird species migrate: the Arctic tern, for instance, completes what might be the longest seasonal migration of any animal — flying between the north and south pole. Some individuals have been recorded to travel over 80,000km a year. Turtles travel tens of thousands of miles annually and females reliably return to the same beach they were born on to lay eggs. Monarch butterflies complete an annual circuit up to 9,000km in North America across four generations.

So why are humans (or at least the ones I know) so poor at navigation? When did we lose the biological knack — or the knowledge — required to get from one place to another without a device telling us to take the first exit at the next roundabout?

The problem with maps

Maps are often perceived as infallible: that by using science, you can create a more precise representation of reality. Ironically, it’s almost impossible to decouple cartography from the norms and traditions of the society in which it was created.

The view that maps are a scientific understanding of reality and unquestioningly objective is problematic as it means people do not challenge them. There are countless stories of ‘Death by GPS’ where individuals, seemingly against better judgement, follow their GPS to the end, driving into the sea, into the desert, or over a cliff. Some of these incidents have been fatal.

Mapping is a deconstructive activity, breaking the assumed link between reality and representation. There has been suggestion that as we obsess over maps and pay less attention to the landscape we are travelling through, we figuratively turn them into constructed entities or commodities.

But maps are not a universal truth.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Navigation the Inuit way

When Western explorers first ‘conquered’ the Canadian Arctic, they were shocked to find that indigenous people — Inuits — were able to live prosperously in this seemingly hostile, wild place. It shocked them more, then, that they were able to navigate effectively in an environment where their traditional navigation cues and even the tools of science didn’t seem to work: compasses and the North Star are useless when you are north.

Far from seeing the landscape as barren, Inuit communities view it as an assimilated network of interconnected trails which link rich areas for hunting, fishing and small communities. Semi-permanent trails exist with rather than on the landscape, travelling around topographical obstructions.

The trails are broken every year by an experienced member of the community such as a hunter. Some parts of the route may be defined using man-made markers, like oil drums or cairns. Navigation along trails requires a great deal of skill, practice, and a precise understanding of the landscape. Trails are efficient and logical; they follow valleys, canyons, frozen water (the favoured travelling surface) and rich hunting grounds, so travellers and sled dogs do not go hungry on the way.

Inuits describe their location and navigate by reading snowdrifts, wind behaviour, tidal cycles and currents and astronomical phenomena. They also use known reference points, which are usually a defined part in the landscape, like a significant plateau or a bend in a river. While these do not usually feature on Western maps, they have specific Inuit names (often literal and descriptive) for the purpose of navigation.

Inuit memoryscapes

Spectacularly, these trails have existed in almost identical locations for centuries despite not being documented in writing. Instead, knowledge of how to travel through the landscape is given as a gift, reproduced in time-honoured traditions of storytelling and the oral tradition. While some more ‘scientific’ Western communities may look down on the oral tradition, Inuit trails — as well as examples of indigenous wayfinding from all over the world — demonstrate that this is an accurate way of passing on knowledge through generations.

Travelling using trails and passing on the knowledge of how to use them — creating a mental map called a memoryscape — is more than just getting from one place to another. This is a vital part of cultural reproduction and identity: Inuits define themselves in terms of where they have come from or are going, and a ritual is performed before a child’s first journey.

It’s testament to imperial hubris that when Western explorers first made contact with Inuits, their knowledge was seen as ‘unscientific’ and supplementary to geographical truth. A popular theory at the time was that indigenous navigation skills were so good because they were less evolved, and therefore possessed navigational intuition similar to animals. But when presented with paper maps Inuit individuals were (despite never making them or ever seeing one before) able to understand and contribute to them, suggesting their mental knowledge was at least on par with Western methods of navigation, if not superior.

Photo by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos on Unsplash

Brain dead? Technology is changing how we find our way

Like most of the world, the younger generation of Inuit are not immune to the allure of GPS and many are beginning to rely too heavily on them, alienating them from traditional wayfinding methods which have been used for millennia.

Traditional wayfinding methods are time consuming and burdensome to learn, but undeniably safer and more effective. GPS usually draws a straight line between two locations, especially in a landscape like the Arctic which is depicted as barren and featureless on Western maps. This may, of course, not be entirely accurate and the user may meet unexpected topographical obstructions or, unbeknownst to them, travel right onto weak sea ice.

Perhaps surprisingly, a study comparing groups using either GPS, paper maps or direct experience to reach a goal found that GPS users travelled longer distances, made more stops, travelled more slowly, made larger direction errors and recalled the landscape more poorly than the other two groups.

The hippocampus

As well as damage to traditional cultural practices, there is compelling research around the impact of GPS on the brain. The hippocampus — a region of grey matter in our temporal lobe — is essential to spatial navigation and supports cognitive maps which allow us to navigate physical space. It also has other purposes, including encoding episodic memory. Without it, you lose your ability to recall past events and formulate new memories.

Studies on the hippocampi of London black cab drivers, who need to memorise 25,000 London streets and thousands of places of interest to obtain an operating licence, show that they have greater grey matter volume in the posterior hippocampi when compared with the average person. Cabbies who had been using their spatial knowledge for a long time had more grey matter than recently licensed cabbies. Preliminary data shows that full-time cabbies are significantly better at navigation in London than retired taxi drivers. This strongly suggests that grey matter in the hippocampus can grow or decrease with use or, conversely, underuse.

Graph showing the mean score of taxi drivers who were still working full-time was compared with retired taxi drivers on a virtual reality London navigation test (Woollett et al, 2009)

If our innate navigational systems are made redundant by GPS, our hippocampi may be undergoing a fundamental change. A recent longitudinal study showed that people with greater lifetime GPS experience have worse spatial memory during self-guided navigation. They also observed that greater use of GPS over time resulted in a steeper decline in hippocampal-dependent spatial memory.

Hippocampal shrinkage is a key predictor for the future diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Ageing people who use their spatial memory have larger, more active hippocampi and better cognitive health. Using spatial strategies like actively building cognitive maps, have been shown to reduce risk of dementia.

The where and the who

As GPS disengages us from our surrounding environment and deprives us of egocentric experiences, we may begin to lack reference points which situate our personal place in the world. Hippocampal shrinkage has implications not just for our spatial navigation but also its other uses: recording the what, where and when of our long term memory. Edward Tolman suggested that behaviour is driven by memory representations which are organised in a cognitive map: we need maps to situate our experiences and memories.

Space, according to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, is ‘not something objective and real, nor is it a substance or an accident, or a relation, but it is subjective and ideal and proceeds from the nature of the mind by an unchanging law, as a schema for coordinating with each other absolutely all things externally sensed.’ Our ability to orientate ourselves in space is also vital in allowing us to orientate ourselves in our own minds: how can we know who we are if we don’t know where we are?

I get it, GPS is easy. And when I need to get somewhere, I just want to get there. But the joy and richness of travel is not just in reaching the destination, but also the experience of the journey and the relationship we have with our environment as we navigate through it.

Perhaps we need to take a step back, dust off our mental maps and get lost?

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I’m not an expert on any of this, it’s just stuff that I find interesting. I’ve made every attempt to be factually accurate but please forgive any errors and let me know if you spot anything wrong.

If you want to read more about wayfinding, I’d really recommend ‘Wayfinding: the Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World’, by M. R. O’Connor. Further references are included below.


Aporta, C., (2004): “Routes, trails and tracks: trail-breaking among the Inuit of Igloolik,” Études Inuit Studies (vol. 28(2), December 2004): 9–38.

Aporta, C., 2009. “The Trail as Home: Inuit and Their Pan-Arctic Network of Routes,” Human Ecology April 2009: Volume 37: 131–146; DOI 10.1007/s10745–009–9213-x.

Bravo, M. (1999) ‘Ethnographic Navigation and the Geographical Gift’ in Livingstone, D. N. and C. W. J. Withers. Geography and Enlightenment. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Bravo, M. T. (1996) The Accuracy of Ethnoscience: a Study of Inuit Cartography and Cross-Cultural Commensurability. Manchester Monographs in Social Anthropology №2, Manchester University.

Bravo, M. T. and C. Aporta, (2012) ‘Cartographic Gestures’ in T. Tyszcuk, J. Smith, N. Clark and M. Butcher (eds.), Atlas: Geography, Architecture, and Change in an Interdependent World. Black Dog Press, 2012, 142–145.

Dahmani, L., Bohbot, V.D. (2020) Habitual use of GPS negatively impacts spatial memory during self-guided navigation. Sci Rep 10, 6310. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62877-0

Egevang, C., Stenhouse, I.J., Phillips, R.A., Petersen, A., Fox, J.W., Silk, J.R.D. (2010) Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2010, 107 (5) 2078–2081; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0909493107

Eichenbaum, H. (2017) The role of the hippocampus in navigation is memory. Journal of Neurophysiology 2017 117:4, 1785–1796

Fenech, E. P., Drews, F. A. and Bakdash, J. Z. (2010) ‘The Effects of Acoustic Turn-by-turn Navigation on Wayfinding’, Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 54(23), pp. 1926–1930. doi: 10.1177/154193121005402305.

Harley, J.B. (1989) Deconstructing the Map

Ishikawa, T., Fujiwara, H., Imai, O., Okabe, A. (2008) Wayfinding with a GPS-based mobile navigation system: A comparison with maps and direct experience. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 28, Issue 1, 2008

Lin, A., Kuehl, K., Schöning, J., Hecht, B. (2017). Understanding “Death by GPS”: A Systematic Analysis of Catastrophic Incidents Associated with Personal Navigation Technologies. 10.1145/3025453.3025737.

O’Connor, M.R., (2019) Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World

Richards, P. (1974) “Kant’s Geography and Mental Maps.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, no. 61, 1974, pp. 1–16. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/621596. Accessed 16 Jan. 2021.

Woollett, K., Spiers, H.J., and Maguire, E.A., (2009) Talent in the taxi: a model system for exploring expertise. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B364 1407–1416