Cover Image: Wayfinding


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Member Reviews

this compelling narrative, O'Connor seeks out neuroscientists, anthropologists and master navigators to understand how navigation ultimately gave us our humanity. Biologists have been trying to solve the mystery of how organisms have the ability to migrate and orient with such precision—especially since our own adventurous ancestors spread across the world without maps or instruments. O'Connor goes to the Arctic, the Australian bush and the South Pacific to talk to masters of their environment who seek to preserve their traditions at a time when anyone can use a GPS to navigate.

O’Connor explores the neurological basis of spatial orientation within the hippocampus. Without it, people inhabit a dream state, becoming amnesiacs incapable of finding their way, recalling the past, or imagining the future. Studies have shown that the more we exercise our cognitive mapping skills, the greater the grey matter and health of our hippocampus. O'Connor talks to scientists studying how atrophy in the hippocampus is associated with afflictions such as impaired memory, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, depression and PTSD.
A wonderful science book.
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Wayfinding is a superb "journey" through the way the human mind has evolved to integrate orientation receptors, spatial reasoning to become a species of navigators.
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I haven't finished this book yet and it may be a bit before I do, But I am enjoying it very much! I read an article in the paper about the hippocampus and the gps devices recently which intrigued me, too. My friends and I used to love to get lost when we traveled, even around town and also in the woods near our homes. We weren't going anywhere and felt we had all day to get un-lost, or that we would discover cool new places. It was entertaining! I read horror stories about gps devices leading to peoples deaths. It wasn't a consideration when I purchased one back in 2007 for a direction challenged family member.  I love maps and discovering new places, and passed that love onto my daughter and countless children I have worked with over the years. 
The chapters on how the Inuits and early explorers found their ways around their world were fascinating. I never really gave them too much thought, but they must have felt much like us children setting out to explore our woods and fields. Naturally, there would be wrong turns, but lessons would be learned and new places remembered! A sense of real adventure is a prerequisite to exploring any place new. Sad to think, our grandkids gps will get them (hopefully) from New York to California, but with no idea of where those are and no awareness of anything in between! And no memory of how to go back to any neat places they discover. 
Sad to imagine how it will affect our memories, too.  The info on how the hippocampus works and causes early childhood amnesia was interesting. Research  is ongoing on the hippocampus and dementia in seniors, and as I am soon to be entering that zone, I find it most interesting.  I either haven't gotten that far in the book, or have passed over it. But if it's in here, I'll read it. The book is well researched and entertaining. It's a whole new area for me to think about!  Kudos to M.R. O'Connor for bring it to our attention!
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A fantastic read, blending science, culture, travel, and human interest while asking (and suggesting answers to) how the brain navigates through space and memory.  Highly recommended!
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When’s the last time you meandered through space—anywhere vaguely unknown to you—without that magical Marauder’s Map in your pocket? Can you remember being lost & not reaching for a phone-GPS?
The first time I set out for college (2000+ miles from home) I got a US road atlas & painstakingly highlighted my route through each state. I visited AAA for more detailed maps (remember TripTiks?). And I carried my mother’s hand-drawn directions to my first night’s stop: my grandparents’ farm off I-80, where the roads turn almost immediately to dirt. Today, preparation for that trip would be vastly different insofar as it wouldn’t exist beyond the tap of a few buttons. I’ve always wondered about the implications of that ease. Does the loss of a sense of adventure translate to different impacts on my physical brain, my memories?
This book is a deep dive into that & much more. The question of how technology is mediating & altering the way humans traverse & experience our landscapes launched journalist M.R. O’Connor’s journey to far-flung corners of the earth. In the Arctic, Australia, & Oceania, she learns from traditional navigators, taking side trips along the way into ethnoastronomy, neurology, literature, comparative biology, & climate change as she explores navigation systems that are rooted in the land, rather than disembodied from it. She synthesizes the work of practitioners & academic experts to understand how different systems develop, & how human movement differs in pattern & cognition from the navigational schema of other animals.
That this synthesis is successful is a testament to O’Connor’s talents as a writer. The narrative is fluid & readable, her clear-eyed transmittal of facts undergirded by a propulsive curiosity. She takes the reader on the journey with her, & this book should come with a Wanderlust Warning, bc if you’re given to itchy feet, it’ll get ‘em TWITCHING. A great pick-up for fans of #PeterMatthiessen, #RobertMacfarlane, & #Moana 😜
Thanks to @netgalley & @stmartinspress for the dARC! I preordered the physical book a few chapters in, & can’t recommend it enough if you want a read that’ll feed your brain & spark your imagination.
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“In 2008, the year I got a smartphone, just 8 percent of American mobile phone owners used a navigation application to access maps and find their way; by 2014, 81 percent of owners were using them.”

How did we find our way before Safari and Google Maps and Waze?  “Wayfinding” explores the question of how people in the past navigated tundra and forest and praire —  and rarely lost their way. 

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the old Inuit couldn’t believe when people started getting lost. They couldn’t believe it.”

The author digs deep. 

“At the heart of successful human navigation is a capacity to record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future—a goal or place that we would like to reach. In this way, navigation involves not only literal travel through space but also mental travel through time, what some call autonoetic consciousness.”

And so we wind our way through wayfinding, “the use and organization of sensory information from the environment to guide us.”
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This may not be the best book I read all year, but it is the best non-fiction book I’ve read so far in 2019, and any future non-fiction book this year is going to have to work hard to unseat this one. Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World snuck up on me. When I received my eARC from NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press, I was anticipating a mildly interesting book about navigation: maps and charts and compasses and whatnot. Instead, what I ended up with was an intense, fascinating, mind-blowing experience that exceeded all expectations and led to me pre-ordering 2 copies of the hardcover: one for me and one as a belated birthday gift for a friend I think will appreciate this.

M.R. O’Connor is interested in how we get around. Specifically, she wants to know how humans—both as individuals and culturally—can navigate and explore without the aid of devices like maps and GPS. Her quest takes her on a journey around the world, from offices in American universities to the Arctic tundra to Polynesian islands. Along the way, she brings in a wealth and variety of sources, from the oral histories and knowledge of Inuit elders and hunters to the intricate MRI results of neuroscience research. How much of our navigation skills come from innate, physical abilities? How much are culturally-dependent? Like so much in science, this is a thorny, difficult-to-answer question. O’Connor communicates her findings with style and contagious curiosity.

My first inkling of how much I would come to appreciate and revel in Wayfinding came from reading O’Connor’s discussion of Inuit wayfinding. O’Connor weaves the practices of Indigenous peoples throughout the book, first discussing the Inuit, then Australian Aboriginals, and finally Pacific Islanders. While discussing the Inuit, she mentions residential schools—and not just in an offhand, let’s-acknowledge-this-part-of-the-history kind of way, oh no. What impresses me so much is the way O’Connor goes much deeper than that. She explains to her readers—many of whom, I’m going to guess, remain ignorant of residential schools and the depth of the damage they have done to Indigenous peoples—exactly why these schools were so abhorrent. She explicitly connects residential schools to the intergenerational trauma and loss of culture, including knowledge of traditional wayfinding.

This becomes a recurring pattern in Wayfinding. As O’Connor discusses Aboriginal peoples in Australia, or the peoples of the Pacific islands, she never misses a beat when it comes to acknowledging colonialism’s impact. At the same time, she also highlights how all of these cultures remain vital and alive—even if some are hanging on through a few particularly dedicated practitioners. She emphasizes the resilience of Indigenous peoples the world over, and shares their stories in their own words. Through her travels to these places, whether it’s the desert in Nunavut or the desert in the Australian Outback, O’Connor speaks to individuals who have been raised in these traditional ways and still practice them. She shares their perspectives on how being connected to the land is healthy. As Inuk Solomon Awa says:

    Being out on the land lifts you up spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It gives you medication, or meditation, however you want to call it. I’ll never stop.

Although she does draw these spiritual connections between how people relate themselves to the land or ocean, O’Connor’s ethnography avoids exoticizing these cultures. Rather, O’Connor is careful to point out that in many cases, Indigenous cultures were practising science as much or more than Western navigators and explorers, for thousands of years. If anything, over-reliance on Western technology and cartography has dulled our awareness of how our surroundings provide natural cues:

>    it took just a couple of centuries for most scientists to forget that environmental cues can be just as accurate as maps and gadgets. This historical amnesia made non-European navigation practices seem that much more supernatural and mysterious.

As Awa says, “We have a hundred megapixels of memory, not one … because we were taught oral history. Our memory is way bigger.” I enjoy that analogy. Similarly, O’Connor points out the European obsession with maps and related navigational tools is inextricably tied up with the European penchant for imperialism and colonialism: you need to be able to map the territories you claim to own. This contrasts with how many Indigenous peoples view themselves as co-existing with the land and water and moving on/through it as part of their everyday reality.

What really cemented Wayfinding’s claim to being the best non-fiction book of 2019 so far is how O’Connor builds atop these anthropological journeys by diving into neuroscience and biology. Yes, she looks at our brains on wayfinding. She cites some extremely interesting studies, mostly related to the hippocampus. Some of them I’ve heard about before, such as the ones relating to taxi drivers in London. Others were novel to me. I loved learning about the various theories around how our brains interpret and store memories, how this relates to our understanding of space and maybe things like musicality too. O’Connor is very skilled at presenting different, sometimes conflicting ideas, and keeping everything clear while also emphasizing what science is widely accepted and which theories are new or less-tested.

Maybe this is just a case of right place, right time, but I’m more receptive to the pitch now that we’re losing something as a result of our use of hi-tech tools. Back when Nicholas Carr first wrote about whether Google was making us stupid, I kind of vacillated. I acknowledged that Google was changing our brains, but I came down on the side that said knowing how to think, knowing how to ask the right questions, was far more important than memorizing things. Since then, my opinions have shifted. O’Connor’s writing and rhetoric found their way into those gaps in my open mind, and she makes a compelling case:

>    Students today learn biology, chemistry, and geology—the result of hundreds of years of scientific discovery—but they atomize this knowledge rather than find a home for it within a larger conceptual framework, namely their own direct experience.

As a teacher of adult students trying to finish their high school diploma, I think a lot about these ideas. I teach math and English. With math in particular, students often come into my classroom with prejudices built up like layers of armour from years of math abuse within elementary and high school. And I’ve had to unlearn—am still unlearning—a lot about how I want to teach math; I’ve had to discover, re-discover, or “borrow” practices that ground knowledge in direct experience. It isn’t easy, yet it’s so much more rewarding. (I won’t pretend that I’m doing everything right, or better. I have a lot more work to do. But I am thinking about these things every single day.)

Awa is right, too: being on the land is medicine. I’m still not what I would describe as an outdoorsy person. I have no desire to go camping, hunting, tracking, etc. But one of my goals this summer is to go for more walks. I’ve already started to do this, to range further and further afield from my house, to wander and meander (I love that word) kilometres from home, and as O’Connor notes, to purposefully take stock of my surroundings. To be mindful of the world around me. It really is good, not just as exercise, but for the soul. The science backs up what O’Connor and innumerable anthropologists heard from the people they’ve interviewed over decades.

Wayfinding is nothing short of amazing in how it brings together so many deep and diverse perspectives on its topic. It respects and champions Indigenous peoples and their traditions, recognizing the lasting effects of colonialism as well as the resilience and skill of the people who are alive and transmitting this knowledge today. It references studies in neuroscience and animal biology to put our wayfinding skills in the context of the wider animal world. Most importantly, for me, O’Connor ruminates on why wayfinding is so important to us, and what we lose when we abdicate that responsibility to machines. If, like me, you are a massive technophile who spends too much time online, this book won’t turn you into a hiking maniac overnight—but it will expand your knowledge and your ways of thinking overnight. And that is the best possible gift a non-fiction book can give to me.

Review will be published on Goodreads on April 30.
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At one point or another, each of us has likely gotten lost. And as twenty-first-century technophiles, we have likely used a global positioning system to get ourselves un-lost. But before GPS and even before paper maps and compasses, our ancestors spread out across the world and learned to navigate vast swathes of seemingly featureless landscapes. How did they do it, and how do their descendants still do it? How does learning to navigate affect our brains? Did the ability to learn to navigate and then tell stories about it aid in humanity’s evolution?

In her new book, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, journalist M.R. O’Connor investigates these questions, blending the stories of Inuits of Nunavut in northern Canada, Aborigianl Australians, and Pacific Islanders with current neurological studies of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is vital to developing spatial skills and memory.

After an incident where a GPS device led O’Connor to a desolate spot in the desert and the realization that, after buying a GPS-enabled smartphone in 2008, she had stopped relying on her own brain to figure out where she was, O’Connor set out to investigate the story and science of navigation. This led her all over the world, from the Canadian Arctic to the Australian Outback, and to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, where native peoples have been finding their way home across hundreds of square miles of open territory with a precision that baffled European explorers. What gave people like the Inuit, Aboriginal Australians, and Pacific Islanders such incredible abilities? Language and story. The Inuits’ many terms for snow describe formations of ice and snow that aid in orienteering. That is, if the snow is shaped thusly, the wind is from the north. In the outback, the Aborigines’ navigational stories are part of the Dreamtime, a religious and historical ideology nearly impossible for outsiders to define, but provides the Aborigines with a cultural memory dating back thousands of years and a network of paths and sites through thousands of square miles of desert.

    “In some places I found individuals and organizations who consider the revival and practice of traditional navigation to be a matter of self-determination and cultural survival. By talking with some of them, I hoped to better understand the value and significance of these practices in the era of hypermobility, to perhaps even experience what the writer Robyn Davidson deems to be real travel: ‘to see the world, for even an instand, with another’s eyes’.”

O’Connor also delves into the navigational techniques of Pacific Islanders, who traveled across the Pacific ocean and settled on small islands hundreds of miles apart. Despite a Western belief that the Islanders found these places by accident, the Islanders know better, and have insisted upon it for years: their ancestors read the tides and ocean currents like a map, and used the stars to guide them across the watery expanses to the islands they knew were there without having seen them before.

Without being preachy about it, O’Connor makes is clear that Western explorers from the 1400s through the present day have given native peoples short shrift when it comes to navigation, and tells of how governments have enforced their own notions of proper behavior, education, and diet upon a people and place not suited to any of these. It is only recently that these people have been able to reclaim their heritage and their ancient skills- hopefully not too late to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

And, far from being a mystical sense of the world, O’Connor argues that the earliest human navigators were the first scientists. They noticed traces and tracks left by animals and weather, built hypotheses around those traces, and then proved their ideas right or wrong. By putting their ideas to the test, ancient humans used the scientific method to figure out how to move safely through the world and shared that knowledge with others.

    “The human mind seems built to encode topographical information in the form of stories. In this way, we created repositories of chared memories in some places and developed deep, emotional attachments to them. We called those places home.”

But don’t think that Wayfinding is all about navigating without a compass. O’Connor also talks to neuroscientists about their research on the hippocampus and how it affects our growth and daily lives. And how our increasing reliance on technology to do our remembering and navigating for us can cause problems we didn’t expect. A damaged hippocampus causes us to live in a dream world where we cannot remember our own pasts or imagine our futures; a shrunken hippocampus could lead to depression or Alzheimer’s.

And yet, as GPS devices and smartphones grow in popularity and capability, we continue to outsource our thinking, becoming more passive as we let the technology determine where we go and how we get there.

The best works of nonfiction tell stories as gripping as the best works of fiction while simultaneously expanding our knowledge of the world. By skillfully blending individual and cultural stories from around the world with recent scientific developments, O’Connor describes the crimes of Western colonialism, the long-ignored wisdom of native peoples, and why it is important for us to look up from our screens and pay attention to the natural world. We are far more capable than our devices would have us believe, and in this gem of a book, O’Connor shows us what we can do if we put our minds to it.
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Wayfinding is the incredible account of the human ability to navigate across the globe using scientific and anthropological data to map a compelling narrative. The author travels to the Arctic to learn the Inuit ways of navigation across a terrain the unfamiliar see as a blank landscape. The story expands to include Australia and Oceania, pulling from historical treks and recent encounters to expand this understanding of human navigation. This is exploration without compasses or smartphones, relying on our biological instincts to get where we need to go. It’s not something our modern society is used to, making this an interesting area to explore.
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A great read about the complex behaviours of our brain in navigating the world around us, how we developed this talent in the distant past and how many traditional cultures are fighting to keep the wayfinding skills that kept us alive.
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The subject matter could be pretty dry, but O'Connor does a great job of making it an interesting narrative and tracking her adventures in navigation across many different modes and locations. The writing is clear and descriptive and the research is really well presented. I think this would be a good read for people who like history or adventure novels such as Clive Cussler's.
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