You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall

By COLIN ELLARD

I hope you will find this book an optimistic one, writes psychologist Colin Ellard at the beginning of You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall. By and large it is. The author is concerned that we’ve become so detached from our physical environment that we’ve lost our navigational instinct (all the tools we’ve created to keep from getting lost — street signs, GPS — have actually contributed to our haplessness). But Ellard, who has an easygoing first-person style, is a genial guide to our shortcomings, cheerfully describing his own adventures getting lost everywhere from a Canadian forest to Beijing to the Arctic. The first half of the book compares the way humans and animals navigate space, and it’s humbling to learn how much better loggerhead turtles, bees, and desert ants are at finding their way than we are. (In one of his many clear and engaging summaries of scientific research, Ellard describes the discovery that ants, after foraging for food, can travel 20,000 times their own body length to return to their nests.) The book’s second half examines how humans have designed space, covering residential, professional, urban, and virtual. It too contains a wealth of fascinating information, such as the finding that people’s movements through cyberspace follow the same principles as their movements through real space. His conclusion, that “the way our minds parse space” has led us “to neglect our stewardship of our planetary home to the extent that we risk losing it,” is anything but optimistic, but even the dark ending can’t entirely dampen the fun that has preceded it.