Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation by Christopher Kemp
Once, driving with a friend from Rochester to New Orleans, I woke for my turn at the wheel to have my friend excitedly tell me we’d been making great time, as we were “less than an hour from Philadelphia.” Considering when we had left home, it was indeed “great time,” I told him. Unfortunately, I also had to tell him that Philadelphia was not even close to on the way to New Orleans, and that he’d been speeding in the wrong direction for the last few hours. Similarly, on another trip down south, I woke up to my wife very proudly informing me we were just coming into the city limits. Which would have been wonderful news, save for the minor detail that the city was Louisville, and we were going to Lexington.
I learned two things from these (and multiple other similar situations either driving or hiking). One, don’t ever fall asleep. Two, not everyone has the same sense of their place in the world as I do.
In Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation (2022), Christopher Kemp tries to find out why that is. Why some people, like me or his wife, have an unerring sense of place and direction and others, like him and my wife and friend, have no idea at any given point where they are in relation to where they’re trying to go. In fact, Kemp’s spatial sense is so bad, he tells us in the introduction, that he is “permanently lost … If I were blindfolded and taken just a few blocks from my house … I’d be as lost as if I’d suddenly teleported to the outskirts of Reykjavik. It takes me only a few moments to become disoriented… Theme parks. Cities. My own street. Megastores … I’m lost all the time.”
What follows is a fascinating tour through the various parts of the brain and body (but mostly the brain) that work together to allow us to navigate our way through the world. Most of the work, it turns out, is done in the hippocampus, a small structure deep in the brain, which is heavily involved in memory (no surprise), but also in the creation of a “cognitive map,” which Kemp describes as “a model of the world; a record engine, an instruction manual; a pattern detector.” In one little tidbit you may have seen reported in the media, London cab drivers, who famously have to spend years memorizing all 25,000+ streets for a test known as “The Knowledge,” have much larger hippocampi than most people, including London bus drivers, who only have to learn a few routes.
Kemp also introduces us to “place cells” that fire to represent a specific location, head-direction cells that do just what you think based on their name, grid cells that create “a precise coordinate system, the same geometric … pattern whether I’m walking around my house or through a busy grocery store,” and several other specialized structures in the brain that contribute to navigational skill.
Just as fascinating as the anatomy are the various methods researchers use in their studies of humans and animals, the evolution of the various structures that make up our navigation system, and the ways in which the system can fail. Including how our technology, particularly GPS, has degraded our abilities. Some of these explorations come via clearly explained academic studies, others through more narrative style reporting, as when Kemp offers up stories of people who followed their GPS into the ocean, onto railroad tracks, into a swamp, etc., or who stepped off a hiking trail just far enough to relieve themselves or take a small rest and who then couldn’t find their way back to the trail only a few yards away. Some of these ended, if not happily, at least positively, as with the story that frames the book — Amanda Eller getting lost for 17 days in Makawao Forest Reserve in Hawaii before being spotted by a rescue copter. Other stories, sadly, end more tragically, as when Geraldine Largay left the Appalachian Trail in Maine to go to the bathroom, couldn’t find her way back to the trail, and died some time after, her body not found until two years later in a makeshift camp three different search teams had come within a hundred yards of.
The science in Dark and Magical Places is detailed, but as Kemp notes in the intro, this is not a textbook; it’s not dumbed down, but rather, simplified and abridged. And as detailed and complicated as the navigational process is, Kemp is never anything but lucid, organized, methodical, up-to-date (a number of cites are from 2019-2021) and clarifying. He also is good about making clear when scientists have direct evidence leading to a consensus or solid conclusion and when researchers are detailing still-to-be-confirmed (or even agreed to) theories. The one place I thought the speculation or theorizing ran a little (and just a little) too far beyond the evidence was the discussion of the differences between us Homo sapiens and our close cousins the Neanderthals. But that was a minor quibble, if that.
Meanwhile, the science is perfectly balanced with personal stories that pepper the work, and especially Kemp’s descriptions of his own major problems with navigation, which often add a welcome lighter tone amidst the more tragic or potentially tragic. This was a totally new topic for me, and I came away much more knowledgeable about the topic and with a clear, cogent understanding of the basic process of how we find our place in the world (at least, physically). I highlighted a lot, read the notes, and copied and pasted links for further reading — all reliable signs of a strong non-fiction work. Strongly recommended.
As someone whose ability to get lost is practically my superpower, I’m ordering this book today!
This reminds me of the 2021 book “A Thousand Brains” by Jeff Hawkins, which spends a good deal of time describing how the neocortex (not just the hippocampus) organizes information in terms of reference frames. The premise is that all of thinking is accomplished using a structure that locates objects within a perceived space, which is how the brain can be so generically structured and yet process such wildly different data.
thanks for the book rec!