Colin Ellard is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo and the director of the university’s Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments, which is devoted to studies of the psychology of space, especially as it pertains to architecture, planning and design. He is also the author of You Are Here, a new book about the emerging psychology of direction. Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook chatted with him about the surprising ways we misunderstand the world around us.
COOK: In your book, you pose the question: Which city is farther west, Reno or Los Angeles. Can you please explain?
ELLARD: I based this question on some interesting research done by Barbara Tversky in which she showed that most people answer this question by saying that LA is farther west. This happens because our minds play all kinds of tricks to schematize space -- that is, to reduce complicated spatial relationships to very simple ones by aligning things that aren't aligned, straightening things that are curved, and grouping things together in ways that may not reflect reality. (California is west of Nevada so therefore everything in California must be west of everything in Nevada -- but it's not). The tricks are there for a very good reason -- they can help us to organize memories for spaces, but they can also let us down sometimes.
COOK: I have looked at a map, and, honestly, I am still having trouble believing it is true...
ELLARD: I'm laughing here because I actually had to fire up Google Maps to be sure I had this right. And I wrote the book! It's a testament to the power of these mental space-warping tools of ours that even when we understand how they work we still fall prey to them.
ELLARD: Not really. If you think about most of the problems that animals have to solve involving space, they need to have exact geometric representations of locations. If you're a bee trying to find your way back to a source of nectar or a mouse trying to flee from a hungry wolf, then having a schematic representation of geographic spaces will not work so well. Human beings use space in a host of different ways -- we imagine spaces, plan them, talk to one another about them -- and so for many of these very high-level activities these kinds of representations of space might work very well. But we still get lost..
COOK: Can you please give an example of the navigation that animals are capable of?
ELLARD: I think my favorite navigator may be the African desert ant. These insects go foraging on long meandering paths, sometimes up to about 20,000 body lengths -- so think scaled to human size of something like running a marathon. When they discover food they pick it up and return it to their nest. They make an accurate turn towards the nest and experiments show that they also have a very good idea of how far they are from their nests. They do this in part using a sun compass that is embedded in their eyes and in part by keeping a very accurate count of their steps using a kind of odometer.
COOK: What is happening in their brains when they are doing this?
ELLARD: How this works at a neural level varies a great deal from animal to animal. In some cases, they're using very specialized detectors (sun compasses, magnetic field detecting circuits) and in others, they are using neural structures that we possess as well (for example, the hippocampus) but they may be using these structures in ways that exceed the abilities of the average human being.
COOK: Why do think humans, with their enormous brains, don't have a very good sense of where they are, much less these kinds of specialized navigational abilities?
ELLARD: I think that the reason that we don't have abilities like magnetic field detection or eyes with sun-compasses is a straightforward one -- we just don't need them. Animals that have such tools use them to solve very specialized kinds of problems - like pinpointing a nest in a large and relatively featureless environment or completing an annual migration over a very large distance.
But this doesn't account for this proclivity that many human beings have for getting lost quite easily. I think that one part of the answer has to do with some special cognitive powers that we have that are mostly lacking in other animals. We have this tremendous ability to cast ourselves mentally through space and time. What I mean by that is just that it is very easy for us to imagine other spaces, places, and times. This ability to project ourselves mentally from one place and time to another is very powerful. For one thing, it helps us to plan ahead and remember our past experiences.
But I also think that this ability is connected in an interesting way with one of our crowning cerebral accomplishments -- self-consciousness. I think that to be aware of oneself as a causal agent in the world, one has to have this kind of ability to imagine other spaces and other times.
COOK: So, you are arguing that our propensity for getting lost is the flip side of this powerful set of mental abilities. But beyond getting lost, what deeper problems come with this ability to "cast ourselves mentally through space and time"?
ELLARD: In the second half of my book, I try to walk through all of the implications of how human beings connect (or don't) with space, and I think there are many.
When we think about how we engage with built spaces at every scale -- from the insides of our homes to the urban scale spaces of our cities, I think that what works and what doesn't work is conditioned by the way our minds understand spaces. This can have a tangible impact on everything from how we interact with other members of our family or our co-workers in a building to how best to organize rapid transit systems in large cities or how to build great public spaces.
Towards the end of my book, though, I also talk about my fear that some of our basic inabilities to understand how spaces are connected to one another and how we fit into the picture is a part of what is responsible for our failure to protect our environment. How is it that an animal with such a magnificent mind as ours has been unable to do what's necessary to protect our own planetary home?
Many have said that an important part of the root cause is that we fail to connect our actions with their consequences, and I think there's much truth to this. What I would add to this argument is that we may fail to make those connections in ways that are explicitly spatial. It's difficult to understand at a gut level, for example, that when we allow our car to idle for a long time, we're making a contribution to climate change that will have many geographically remote effects. The intellectual argument is not that hard to understand, but we don't feel the connection in part because of our fragmented understanding of space. The great evolutionary biologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould said "we will not save what we do not love." But if, in our insular city spaces we don't feel a connection to the rest of the planet, it can be a supreme effort to feel the kind of love that Gould was talking about.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.