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

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

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by Colin Ellard

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An eye-opening exploration of the intriguing and often counter-intuitive science of human navigation and experience of place.

In the age of GPS and iPhones, human beings it would seem have mastered the art of direction, but does the need for these devices signal something else—that as a species we are actually hopelessly lost. In fact we've filled our


An eye-opening exploration of the intriguing and often counter-intuitive science of human navigation and experience of place.

In the age of GPS and iPhones, human beings it would seem have mastered the art of direction, but does the need for these devices signal something else—that as a species we are actually hopelessly lost. In fact we've filled our world with signs and arrows. We still get lost in the mall, or a maze of cubicles. What does this say about us? Drawing on his exhaustive research, Professor Collin Ellard illuminates how humans are disconnected from our world and what this means, not just for how we get from A to B, but also for how we construct our cities, our workplaces, our homes, and even our lives.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[A] smart, deeply satisfying exploration of how creatures from insects to humans handle the complexities of physical space." –The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Delightfully lucid. . . . Ellard has a knack for distilling obscure scientific theories into practical wisdom."—Jonah Lehrer, New York Times Book Review

"One of the finest science writers I've ever read. . . . . It's fun, pure fun."—Los Angeles Times

"[A] fascinating . . . rundown of the processes involved in keeping us and other animals moving in the right direction." —The Globe and Mail

Jonah Lehrer
…delightfully lucid…The second half of You Are Here bears only a tangential relation to the first, shifting focus from feats of navigation to the design of public spaces. It's a testament to the charm and confidence of Ellard's writing that the reader is willing to follow along. It also helps that Ellard has a knack for distilling obscure scientific theories into practical wisdom.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This delightful, dense and illuminating book by Ellard, an experimental psychologist, explores how we navigate space and hone our sense of direction, despite being paradoxically spatially primitive and overly evolved. All animals, monocellular and multicellular alike, find their way to their basic needs-heat, light and nourishment-but while ants, for example, don't get lost and amoebas are guided by an "internal toolkit," most human beings face unique difficulties. Unlike the Inuit, who have a superb sense of direction, most people find that the more sophisticated their environments, the weaker their grasp of space and direction. Ellard offers insights into how humans navigate their own homes and why they select certain spots for refuge-preferences influenced by gender, culture and history. He emphasizes the importance of orienting children to natural space as well as "virtual spaces," and his chapter on cities serves as an excellent primer on urban planning and psychogeography, the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment on the emotions. (July)

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Library Journal

As an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo and director of its Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments (RELIVE), Ellard draws on a vast knowledge base of how humans perceive space, use space, and move through space versus all that is done by animals such as bees, rats, and birds. In the first two-thirds of this book, he displays this expertise with clarity and a sure hand, providing lay readers with a thorough understanding of space syntax, visibility graphs, spatial cognition, etc., as they relate to humans and other creatures and their impact on our lives, our architecture, our homes, and our cities. But the author becomes less sure and convincing in the book's last third when he attempts to tie the preceding pages to cyberspace environments such as Second Life, to greenspace in our urban design, and lastly to our failure to be outdoors in nature. Ellard believes that we may "neglect our stewardship of our planetary home to the extent that we risk losing it." VERDICT Ellard's message is not new, but his reasoning is novel. Despite its flaws, this title will intrigue readers interested in psychology, the environment, and architecture.—Michael D. Cramer, Schwarz BioSciences, RTP, NC

—Michael D. Cramer
Kirkus Reviews
Ellard (Experimental Psychology/Univ. of Waterloo) investigates the current thinking about spatial intelligence. How, asks the author, can humans be such masters of abstract space yet so clumsy in getting from point A to B? What types of spatial information available to all creatures are we missing out on? Ellard writes with admirable clarity, patiently introducing numerous concepts and theories, from the elemental fact that humans must move to survive-to find food, to find a mate-all the way to renowned architect Bill Hillier's "space syntax," a math-grammar used to describe relationships between small parts of space within a larger spatial context. Along the way, readers are smartly briefed on an accumulation of spatial-processing material, from both the physiological and psychological realms-optic flow, the vestibular system, landmark navigation, light-wave recognition and magnetic fields. The author also includes a lively discussion of the spatial organization of home and city and draws on the work of Le Corbusier, Jane Jacobs, Guy Debord and Ivan Chtcheglov, who claimed that "city spaces evoke feelings are surely as mixtures of chemicals produce drug effects." Ellard then travels through cyberspace, searching for connections to the human understanding of spatial relations-"navigation from website to website by a series of clicks mirrors the way that our mind processes space. Internet sites are connected to one another as nodes in a topology." The author's thoroughness and range are only hampered by the absence of geographers in the narrative, who should certainly figure in any study of spatial organization. An anecdotally rich provocation in service of environmental awareness.Agent: Denise Bukowski/The Bukowski Agency

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
Looking For Targets
Simple Tactics for Finding Our Way
That We Share With All Other Animals

Following the light of the sun, we left the Old World

We’ve all done it. At a meeting, a conference, a wedding, or a simple potluck gathering with friends, the food appears. Though manners may prompt us to restrain ourselves for a few minutes, our antennae wave, our restless feet shuffle, and we make a beeline for the tables. If a scientist were to hover above us and measure our movements, it would be easy to show the average guest-to-plate distance as a steadily decreasing mathematical function. This class of behavior, called taxis, is the simplest kind of spatial behavior that can be imagined. All that is required is a target (that magnificent roast of beef), a sensor or two (our well-tuned nostrils and eyes), and some kind of motive force (sore feet squeezed into formal shoes will do nicely).

Life does not always treat us so kindly, though. On our way to the table, Longtalker Larry makes a perfect intercept course. How to rearrange the missile trajectory so as to home in on the canapés while avoiding verbal entanglement with Larry? The buffet table has two rows of food. On the closest side is Aunt Betty’s famous potato salad, but it looks a little bland. The better bet is Sarah’s Spicy Potatoes, but they’re just out of reach. We’ll need to thread our way through a crowd, momentarily losing sight of the target completely, in order to plan the return foray to starch Valhalla on the distal side of the room. What’s the quickest way? Perhaps the party is in a building we’ve never seen before. The sweet aromas are everywhere, but compared to what vision gives us, they don’t make much of a spatial cue. Which way do we go first? How do we conduct an efficient search?

Compared with many of the stories of feats of navigation that I will relate to you, finding your way to and then around a table full of food is small potatoes (Sarah’s if you’re lucky). Nevertheless, all such behaviors, ranging from the trivially simple taxis to the complex wayfinding task, point to one basic truth of biology. Unlike the potted geranium sitting in my window, you and I, like all other animate beings, need to be able to move from one place to another to survive. In order to remain nourished, I must get up from my chair and go to the fridge to find food. In order to avoid a premature demise, I need to leap out of the way of the bus that hurtles down the road toward me. The whole raw biological point of my individual survival is to reproduce. But this, too, requires movement. In order to pass my genes on, I need to be able to get up and walk around until I find a mate. (This, you may argue, is something of an oversimplification.) To survive, we must come to terms with space and time. Whatever the physicists and philosophers might say about these things, movement is defined as a change in place over some duration of time. Given this, it is not at all surprising that nature has produced a wide array of mechanical devices that produce movement (legs, wings, fins, and so on). In addition, we have evolved an even more impressive arsenal of tools that allow us to know where to move—that is, to find our way through space to important goals such as sustenance, warmth, safety, and sex.

The simplest tricks of navigation are perhaps so obvious that we don’t even think of them as being tricks. You are walking down the aisle in a grocery store when, just ahead of you, you see the box of spaghetti you’ve been seeking. With little or no conscious effort, the box is soon in your hand and then in your shopping cart. What’s to explain? This seemingly trivial piece of behavior—moving to a clearly visible target—is something that we do hundreds of times a day. Such behaviors are required of all animals that move, yet they are accomplished in a wide variety of ways.

The most primitive kinds of animals, one-celled creatures such as bacteria, though their needs may be simple, must still possess a basic toolkit that allows them to find their way to conditions that sustain life: light, heat, and sustenance. Sometimes these unicellular denizens of our soil, water, and even our own bodies can employ a search strategy much like a child playing a game of blind man’s bluff. Their rates of movement rise and fall with the activity of sensors tuned to the concentrations of heat, light, or chemicals that surround them, and these changes in movement bring them inexorably into contact with their goal. Other than the movement of a plant bending toward the light, it is difficult to imagine a simpler mechanism by which a living thing can deal with the problems of space.

In other cases, such tiny creatures as these may possess specialized equipment to help them guide their movements. In 1996, a group of scientists, headed by Dr. David McKay of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, claimed they had discovered fossil evidence for the existence of life on Mars in a lump of meteoric rock that had been collected from the Antarctic. Analysis of the chemical composition of the rock left little doubt that it was of Martian origin, and the peculiar formations inside the rock looked suspiciously biological. Researchers thought they could see tiny cell bodies, reminiscent of our own earthly bacteria.

As some of McKay’s early evidence has been disputed by others, the initial excitement has died down, but he remains convinced that the particles of magnetite that were found in the sample once constituted a part of a Martian life form. Magnetite is found in various places on our planet, but one of the most interesting homes for this magnetic mineral is inside single-celled organisms that employ a unique style of navigation. So-called magnetotaxic animals use particles of magnetite as tiny compasses that orient their bodies with planetary geography. Though these magnetite bodies take advantage of the earth’s magnetic field in exactly the same way that makes the Boy Scout compass face north, in this case it is not to help them to read maps correctly but to do something much simpler: the magnetite pulls these tiny aquatic animals downward into the lakebeds lining their watery homes, where they find food, safety, and comfortable temperatures. The origin of the magnetite found in McKay’s samples is a matter that still swirls in controversy, but if he is correct, not only will his discovery constitute the first evidence of extraterrestrial life but his claim will be based on an elementary form of navigation.

Meet the Author

Colin Ellard is an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo, the director of its Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments, and an international expert in the psychology of navigation. The results of his research have been published in scientific journals for more than twenty years. Ellard lives in, and regularly gets lost in, Kitchener, Ontario.

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You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
paterbabe More than 1 year ago
"You Are Here" starts out strong. Part I "Why Ants Don't Get Lost at the Mall" offers a series experiments that uncover how humans and other creatures navigate through space. Sadly, for those of us prone to getting lost at the mall, despite blurb on the jacket ("if you, or your keys, have ever gotten lost, Ellard can tell you how it happened - and how to stop it happening again") this book does not offer any specific science-based insights to improve our navigation skills - unless you are planning to become a Bedouin tracker, in which case there are some fine tips about camel dung that you will no doubt enjoy even more than I did. In Part II, the books starts to lose its way. Taken on their own, the chapters on "House Space," "Working Space," and "City Space" offer nice overviews of architectural theory and urban planning, but taken together they draw on redundant material. The book would be stronger if these three chapters were condensed and restructured. The connection to 'spatial navigation' grows even looser when the book moves to the chapter on "Cyberspace." The chapter starts off well enough with the theory that the human brain is uniquely capable of navigating virtual worlds, but after briefly presenting the result of one study on the topic of social distance in "Second Life" the rest of the chapter devolves into random musings on the powers and perils of virtual technology. When the topic turns to "Greenspace" the book seems to wander off the path entirely. Ellard's promising hypothesis - that the way the human brain is wired to think about 'inside' and 'outside' space leads us to devalue our impact on natural spaces - is never substantiated. He vaguely refers to Jane Jacobs' theory that the Romantic movement isolated us from nature, and extends that idea to conclude that all urbanized humans feel that nature is inherently 'outside' of our day-to-day space. From the first part of the book, I was expecting new insights into the relations between human beings and their natural environment based on brain science and psychology, not a tenuous connection based on Jacobs' iconoclastic interpretation of Romantic poetry. Ironically, the author's proposed antidote to 'nature deficit disorder' is the encouragement of exactly the type of post-industrial biophilia that was attempted by the the Romantic movement and, presumably, failed (?) There seems to be little science to go on here, so we are instead presented with a loosely-linked series of ideas on how to improve engagement with urban and suburban greenspaces. For example, from the author's own experience the environment would benefit if everyone took down their fences and let their children play together in a kind of collective backyard. This is a very nice image, but it's not exactly a scientifically-validated psychological insight nor a tested ecological approach (not to joke about anyone's kids, but surely our ecological footprint is smaller if we have fewer children, rather than letting hordes of urchins loose to play a giant game of hide and seek?) I don't mean to sound harsh, as I enjoyed the bulk of the book. Perhaps I would have gotten more out of Part II if I read it in a separate sitting and took it on it's own terms. After reading Part I, I was expecting a scientific approach and became, well, disoriented when Part II swerved into more speculative areas.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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