Colin Ellard, an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo’s Research Lab for Immersive Environments, has written an ambitious and well-received book about human navigation titled, “You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall.” Ellard’s research has long focused on how humans interact and navigate in the physical and virtual worlds, and this book deeply explores the psychology of why and how we get lost.
Central to Ellard’s writings is his belief that we need to better understand how the human mind works, rather than look for technological solutions to all of our problems. When it comes to getting lost, it’s our lack of direct connection with our environment that stands in the way of getting our bearings, and the technical trappings of modern society (rapid transit, cell phones, and the Internet) magnify that disconnection.
The way our urban spaces work is another focus of Ellard’s work. He asserts that there needs to be a greater connection to psychology for architects and urban planners to better design our physical spaces for human wayfinding. There’s a whole chapter on cities that looks intently on psychogeography, the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment on the emotions.
As part of the book’s advance material Ellard offers the Top 10 Ways to Avoid Getting Lost:
- Take the time to smell (and look at) the roses. The difference between expert way-finders and the rest of us probably has much to do with being able to pay attention to details. Take the time to soak in the sights, sounds, and smells so that they’ll be familiar on the return. Try not to walk (or drive) on auto-pilot.
- Remembrance of things passed. Insects use a strategy called the “look-back.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. From time to time, turn around and look behind you so that you’ll be better able to recognize a scene on the way back.
- Don’t get lost in time. We are as bad at keeping track of when as we are at keeping track of where. When travelling through unfamiliar territory, check the time frequently so you’ll know how long a trip has taken. Then you can estimate how long it will take to return.
- Every route’s a story. Ancient way-finders connected places with stories to help them remember routes. When walking, try to stitch the things you see into a tall tale that you’ll remember later.
- Embrace your inner geek. Remember that technology is your friend. If you’re out in nature and you’re carrying a compass, check it frequently before you get lost so that you’ll have some idea of your route. If you’re using a GPS, make sure you know how it works before you need it (and make sure the batteries work!).
- Head for home. When visiting somewhere new, assign one major area or street as the home base and return to it frequently during your explorations. This will help you build a better mental map quickly.
- Stop, drop, and wait. If you become seriously lost in wilderness, stop moving! Search and rescue teams always begin their “hasty search” from your last known location, and the less you move away from it, the faster you’ll be found.
- Picture yourself found. If you have a digital camera, take lots of pictures of your route. In a pinch, you will be able to refer to your pictures to remind you of sights along your route, but even without doing so, taking pictures forces you to pay attention to where you are.
- Don’t lose your cool. Remember that we all become lost from time to time. Getting angry with your partner or yourself will only distract you and make it more difficult to find your way.
- Stay on track. Most people become lost in natural spaces because they leave a marked trail. Never overestimate your abilities to find your way back.
Ellard’s work should be embraced by geographers, mapmakers and planners alike. The deep connection that he draws between wayfinding and psychology holds lessons for designing better environments and for helping the spatially challenged.