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Spatial and scientific reasoning from wayfinding

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Jul 9, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

The origins of scientific thinking probably developed with the first animal trackers, not just the Greeks. As we wayfind, we piece together inferences by reading the signs in the environment around us.

If this is the first post you landed on, see this wayfinding intro for more context: Wayfinding — finding my way without GPS.

Origins of scientific reasoning

Regardless of whether you actually develop successful wayfinding skills, there’s another reason for wayfinding: it stimulates the spatial reasoning within your brain’s hippocampus. This gets us more to the reasons why neuroscientists and other academics are fascinated by wayfinding. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that lights up during wayfinding, but the hippocampus doesn’t just perform spatial mapping, it encodes events in a location context in your memory and gives rise to scientific thinking and imagination.

Some researchers think scientific reasoning developed as a result of early hunters tracking animals by interpreting signs. This is called the social trackways theory. O’Connor says, “Hominids are animals that learned to ‘read’ the tracks of other hominids and animals and eventually infer meaning about events that happened in the past from these symbols. This enabled them to predict future behaviors based on these stories and use them to find one another, avoid predators, and successfully hunt prey” (105). In other words, as early humans tried to find the locations of animals, they had to look closely at tracks and interpret signs in the environment. They had to assemble these signs into a coherent story that would explain which animals had been there and predict where they had gone.

Louis Liebenberg, Harvard professor of evolutionary biology, says “[trackers] have to create a working hypothesis in which spoor evidence is supplemented with hypothetical assumptions based not only on their knowledge of animal behavior, but also on their creative ability to solve new problems and discover new information.”Liebenberg argues that “rational scientific thinking didn’t originate with the ancient Greeks but with hunter-gatherers” (qtd. in O’Connor, 218-19).

Tracking requires a great number of logical inferences and deductions. This thinking eventually led to similar analytical thought processes like Sherlock Holmes, Freud, and others, O’Connor explains (101). “Our existence depends on thousands of instances of inference and deduction that allow us to draw conclusions about other people and things, what has happened and what will happen,” O’Connor says (103). The hunter constructs a “narrative sequence” based on the perceived signs to indicate what happened in a place and where an animal ventured to (102). These narrative sequences gave way to story and storytelling, which some academics believe is the centerpiece of human intelligence (122-23).

Apparently, this same reasoning process also led to autonoetic thought processes, in which humans are able to see themselves from an outside perspective. The “autonoetic consciousness” is “the capacity to be aware of one’s own existence as an entity in time” (105). If you can conceive of an animal’s purpose for having been in a place and where it traveled to, you can apply the same thought processes to yourself, observing your own self as if an outside observer, analyzing and perceiving yourself and your actions as if from another person’s perspective.

As you can guess, these reasoning processes aren’t active when people blindly follow turn-by-turn directions in a GPS-based app. If you’re not making decisions, you’re not getting any of the benefits of wayfinding. In fact, most of my wayfinding doesn’t involve anything approaching the kind of observations and deductions required to track animals. In my wayfinding, I study a map beforehand, identify what appears to be a good route, commit it more or less to memory (maybe with some notes on paper, or by printing it out), and then navigate there. I’m making a minimal number of decisions about the route — optimizing for ease, efficiency, and sometimes scenery.

But the type of reasoning involved in animal tracking is much more Sherlock Holmesian. While I was reading this section in O’Connor’s book, one of my daughters lost her iPhone. Other family members looked all day for it without success. Filled with confidence, I thought I could track down the phone’s whereabouts. Like an early hunter thinking through the details, I narrowed down the last time she had the phone, events that day and since, potential places it could and could not be, a radius from the last known location before the battery died, common places where my daughter interacted in the house, and more. I thought I could think through the problem, or potentially eliminate all other possibilities until arriving at the location the phone must be. Alas, despite my initial confidence, I did not locate the iPhone. It is still lost.

However, the experience made me more aware of this scientific reasoning and how it connects with wayfinding. I think similar modes of scientific thinking could be observed in non-wayfinding scenarios. For example, a programmer who tracks down the source of a tech bug employs similar logical skills. To troubleshoot, the programmer might isolate different elements to test, or might strip down a piece of code to its simplest form and then build it back up piece by piece, analyzing the effects of each addition until it breaks. The programmer might search error messages, log files, recreate the issue and observe different analytics (memory usage, performance waterfalls, etc.) all trying to track down the whereabouts of the faulty code. The troubleshooter might identify all the components in a system and draw arrows in how they interrelate, and do other tests to suss out the issue.

Anytime you’re problem solving, you’re paying close attention to detail and making many decisions and adjustments based on observations and feedback. Although it’s not animal tracking, I’ve spent many hours looking at bike routes in the areas near me, trying to find the best routes. Which streets look safe? If the streets lack protected bike paths, are there sidewalks? Are the sidewalks long unbroken stretches, or are they full of intersections? If it’s just a bike shoulder, how fast are the cars traveling? Can they see me if I’m riding in the road? Does the route get me to a public transportation hub that could connect me to another part of the city? Would a bus, train, link light rail, or some other transportation service be available for the starting location and destination I want to go? What combination of car + train + bike would work best, getting me there in about an hour? Which segment of the journey is best accomplished by each mode of travel? What’s the maximum length for each segment mode? Would a longer route, more scenic route be safer even if it adds 20 minutes to the ride? Would an eBike close a longer distance for me or just create other issues? How does rain complicate the route? Am I riding up or downhill? Which time would be best to leave at? If I optimize for time but sacrifice exercise, is that actually saving me time? Can I be productive on a train? What about train productivity during rush hour, when only standing room is available?

I’ve spent days looking at maps, then exploring areas in experiential ways, taking note of the widths of bike paths, the inclines or declines, traffic congestion, stop-and-go momentum with lights, and more. Then I take this feedback and adjust my routes and plans. Does this attempt to find optimal bike routes qualify as wayfinding? Does it involve enough decision-making, experimentation, imagination, logical inferences from signs, feedback loops, and other judgements to cause my hippocampus and prefrontal cortex to come alive?

(By the way, I wrote about my commuting strategy here: My multimodal commuting strategy and later volunteered for a commuter spotlight.)

Keeping the wayfinding mindset fresh

With wayfinding, one danger is that once you find a route, after that route becomes a habit, and you no longer use your spatial reasoning and deductive powers to wayfind, your hippocampus no longer gets used. Instead, the path becomes encoded to an automated habit stored by the caudate nucleus. O’Connor says when this happens, “autopilot takes over. You see the white building, it acts as a stimulus and triggers a response to turn left to get to the bakery” (263).

This pattern befalls successful wayfinders, because as soon as you find your way and start taking that route time and again, all the brain benefits of wayfinding seem to disappear. To counter this, O’Connor says you need to vary your routes, try new paths, and more. You want to avoid automation taking over. “Take new streets and shortcuts to get places; regularly draw a bird’s-eye view of your environment with landmarks; incorporate new behaviors and routes into your daily life” (268).

Reading this, I thought about how my wife likes to go hiking in the same trail system (Lake Desire). She’s been there so many times (75 or more within the past year, for sure) that she knows the right way to turn on the many unmarked trails. She no longer has to think about whether to turn left or right at the many forks and junctions. Although the trail junctions do have signs, she’s long past the point where she even looks at them. She can put aside any thinking about wayfinding and focus on a podcast or chat with a friend. She turns at each fork in the trail without even thinking which way to go. It’s the same way that driving home, when I get to about 2 miles from our house, I no longer even look at road signs because the landscape is visually familiar.

I sometimes accompany my wife on these hikes. On the most recent outing, I asked if we could go somewhere new. So instead of Lake Desire, we went to Henry’s Ridge. The trails were spaghetti (a compressed pattern designed more for mountain bike riding, it seems, rather than hiking). I printed out a map and we tried to navigate by looking at various signs, but the map was rudimentary and seemed incomplete or inaccurate compared to the reality of the trails. Nevertheless, we compared signs posted on trees with trail names on the map and made our best guesses.

We walked first along Stingr trail and then on Beaver Trax, over to Ravensdale Lake, then up Snake trail and across Bail trail and then following some wider general access paths and who knows what — eventually, we just started walking in the general direction toward our car along whatever trail seemed headed in that direction. A couple of times my wife checked her GPS to ensure we were heading in the right direction.

By trying a new route, we were forced into a state of more acute awareness of the environment, especially when we weren’t sure which way to go. This hyper awareness prompted my wife to take more stock of the many types of trees, plants, and other vegetation. At least a half dozen times she stopped to use her naturalist app to identify the type of tree/plant/shrub we were passing.

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Henry's Ridge

Her awareness and sense of detail were heightened — precisely because we’d taken an unfamiliar route in a new location. This is my entire point here. When you try new routes and places, your hippocampus wakes up, your spatial senses kick into gear, and your alertness and awareness to everything around you spikes.

Correlating the map with the world

In fact, a few times we could no longer correlate our location on the map. Comparing a map’s drawings with what you see in real life is always a mismatch, which is the whole difficulty of wayfinding. The mismatch reinforces the fact that maps are a metaphor to the environment, optimizing for some detail that the map maker wanted to emphasize. By definition, maps must be a rudimentary subset of what you actually see in the environment. This mismatch between the map (what you see on paper) and the world (what you see looking around you) is what forces our brain to make associations, interpretive leaps, to infer conclusions from small details. You interpret a 2D line on paper to represent the trail ahead (or does that line refer to something else?). Compare the pictures above the representation below:

Henry's Ridge Map

The mismatch forces you into spatial reasoning modes to make some correlation between a model on paper with a model of the real world. When the map doesn’t seem to match reality, that’s when the brain’s spatial powers kick into overdrive. Is this trail fork we see the bending scribble on the map? But why is only one path shown on the map rather than a fork? What other landmarks can we see to confirm that what we’re looking at is in fact this mark on the map?

Following a trail map is similar to following product instructions to put together some physical product, such as a dresser or, in our latest purchase, a composter. One locates the instructions, looks at the pictures, and then tries to map the how-to guide’s images to the physical pieces, screws, and other unfamiliar gizmos in the box. Then step by step, you correlate the assembly actions with the various pieces strewn all over the floor until you build the object.

Composter instructions

In other words, instructions (especially highly visual ones) are a map that the user must try to follow. It involves a high degree of spatial reasoning, comparing, matching, intuiting, and more. Pieces might look highly similar except for the presence or absence of a single screw hole. Assembling things isn’t something anyone can do without practice. My youngest daughter (11 years old) is a skilled artisan with cardboard, but she flounders when assembling anything from IKEA.

My wife, on the other hand, scored high on the ASVAB test (the military even tried to recruit her because of her score), and seems to have a knack for interpreting instructions to assemble products. When I assist, I often just want to be the grunt who does what she says (e.g., insert this screw here, bolt this there) because I know that being the interpreter requires much more reasoning, spatial interpretation and identification, etc. It often makes my brain hurt. I supply the muscle, she supplies the brains.

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Getting lost

There’s also an argument for ditching the map entirely and just going with the flow. In Mary Oliver’s essay “Upstream,” Oliver remembers a time during her youth when others thought she was lost, but she was really just following a river far upstream, entranced by the beauty of the natural world so much that she ceased to take note of her camp location or the standard trails and other boundaries. Remembering this time, she writes, poetically:

Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor. With growth into adulthood, responsibilities claimed me, so many heavy coats. I didn’t choose them, I don’t fault them, but it took time to reject them. Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness. …. May I stay forever in the stream.” (7)

There’s a kind of beauty in being pulled into a natural setting in an immersive way such that all other matters fade into oblivion. This kind of getting lost means becoming engrossed in nature’s detail rather than in the cares of the world.

Oliver’s celebration of being lost is quite a different type of lost than Bill Kilday describes in Never Lost Again. Kilday, a member of the Keyhole team that created the app which later became Google Maps, recounts a time when trying to navigate through Boston’s streets to find his way home to a wife. His wife, trying to calm a screaming baby, had called him twice asking when he’d be home, but he kept getting turned around and couldn’t find the right exit or turn. Many roads in Boston have the same names (e.g., “Cambridge”) because they were named after the place the road led to. Kilday writes:

“My wife, Shelley, at home with a screaming baby, had already called twice. ‘Where are you?’ In frustration, I pounded my fist against my car’s dashboard, yelling at nobody but myself, while driving five miles in the wrong direction down Route 2, looking for the next roundabout. Or maybe it was 3A? From 2000 to 2003, I lived in Boston — and I was frequently turned around. The city was merciless to a transplanted Texan: It was like a foreign language. The locals seemed to take pride in the missing signage, serpentine streets, and roundabouts. You needed to solve a math equation to navigate some intersections.” (xi)

In Wayfinding, O’Connor talks with a landscape historian named John Stilgoe who says that becoming lost is a rare treat, as it allows the mind to wander. Stilgoe says that “busy, rushed Americans … no longer take the time to explore and discover their surroundings and have lost their capacity to even see them directly” (290). O’Connor explains,

To him, getting lost is an opportunity for discovery, one that demands that all the senses come alive, and creates a maximum alertness in which observation and possibility are heightened (290).

When you’re in an unfamiliar surrounding, not sure of which way to go, it changes your sense of perception. Everything looks new.

For example, the other week I went for a walk outside my house and ran across a small path through a wooded area that I’d never seen before. I took it and soon emerged onto another street that was entirely new to me. As I walked down the new street, I noticed the houses were much older than the more recent subdivision buildouts. My eyes were tracing the lines of each house I passed. I felt like I’d gone back in time to the 1980s in maybe another town or something. The street continued on much longer than I anticipated, and I started to question which direction I thought I was heading.

“If I’m lost and I don’t have anyone to ask, I love that feeling,” Joe Stilgo says. O’Connor notes that Stilgo distinguishes “between being desperately lost in dangerous circumstances and getting lost in a generally unknown place. In the latter case, to go off track is really about challenging the borders of one’s familiarity, pressing beyond the known spaces of our understanding and experiences and into the new” (291-292).

I’m sure that if Kilday were to suddenly become intrigued by Boston’s serpentine streets and get engrossed/lost in thought as he explored the area with novelty and wonder, he would have found his clothes and belongings on the porch when he finally arrived home. Even so, whether you’re intentionally lost or accidentally lost, your perception determines the value of the experience.


Kilday, Bill. Never lost again: The Google mapping revolution that sparked new industries and augmented our reality. HarperCollins, 2018.

O’Connor, M. R. Wayfinding: The science and mystery of how humans navigate the world. St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

Oliver, Mary. Upstream: selected essays. Penguin, 2019.

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Continue on to the next post: Driving without GPS — the desire to be free and in control.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.