Monday, August 15, 2011

Wayfinding - Inner Navigation II

I have discovered to my dismay that I am not as good at this as I thought. In fact, I may be quite poor at navigating, and my supposed strengths are just compensatory efforts.

Left over from childhood is my default opinion that if I am good at some brain skill, I am likely to be extremely good, even uncannily good at it. Over the years I have certainly found many examples of skills I possess in moderation, and these of course well outnumber the things I am exceptionally good at. But my working assumption is that I have the rare skill. When I first heard of perfect pitch, I immediately concluded I must have it. Upon finding I did not, I sought ways to imitate the skill, mentally keeping track of the limits of my singing range and counting up or down from that murmur to Middle C. I figured that must be what the others did naturally, but I was missing one link in the chain which I would have to build myself.

Jonsson kept mentioning that those who grew up in urban environments did not have the same intuitive navigational skills as those who grew up in other environments. Well, country people say things like this all the time, but I always assume they are just woofing, trying to elevate themselves without warrant. I took it as a personal affront. Cheeky bastard, I'll show you navigation.

Yet the examples he kept providing of the errors an expert makes seldom sounded all that familiar to me. Nor did his descriptions of wayfinding in ambiguous situations ring many bells. There were a few things which did indeed match up. The inability to overwrite an incorrect map, for example, was familiar to me. Upon my arrival at Williamsburg for college, I became introduced to the place with conflicting data, and never got a clear idea of my location in space the whole time there. I did have a powerful and accurate cognitive map of the college plus CW, so I just stayed there, mostly. Every place else I have lived, I went exploring. I never did in Williamsburg.

After reading Jonsson, I wondered if it were indeed my initial map which threw me off. Checking the area with mapquest, I saw that while the entire peninsula from Richmond to Portsmouth runts NW to SE, Colonial Williamsburg is oriented East-West. If one goes 10 miles in any direction from Duke of Gloucester Street, one ends up in deep water. Additionally, the W&M campus is overall an equilateral triangle with one point at the foot of DOG St. Equilaterals are built around 60 degree angles, remember, not 90's and 45's. Yet the easternmost campus, the old campus, retains its E-W, right-angled orientation for about 100 yards into the triangle.

Then, just to top it off, the two legs of the equilateral triangle, Richmond Road and Jamestown Road, angle outward a further 30 degrees at the very point they leave campus. The entire arrangement is an island of roadways that is unrelated to anything around it, but is connected in a dozen ad hoc ways to Tidewater VA. Richmond Road heads straight for Richmond for about 300 yards, then unaccountably heads to Fredericksburg for the next 20 miles. Tracing all this I understood clearly how my map had gone instantly wrong, and now I knew why I never could fix it.

I am very curious how all my sons, who grew up in different environments are in intuitive navigation. For myself, I now see that my map-obsession is an attempt to compensate by brute intellectual force a rather middling inner navigational ability.

Offhand comments: I had trouble navigating London, because deep in my navigational toolkit I think of a city's river running N-S, as the Merrimack does in Manchester, my boyhood home. I learned this is a not-uncommon error.

We seldom learn the routes to places beyond walking distance until we learn to drive, at which point we are more likely to rely on maps at first.

We unconsciously smooth routes into something more regular. Winding roads straighten in our memory. Imperfect right angles become an exact 90 degrees in our cognitive map. These smoothings, necessary for memory, are the foundation of some of our navigational errors. (Tiredness, passively riding, and cloudy skies are some of the other causes.)

So have fun, rehearsing in your mind when you first came to the important places in your life, and whether you made errors in your immediate cognitive map.


Jonathan said...

I find that I can't shake what I know about a road. If I know that 89 runs E-W, I find it very difficult to fathom any time where it is going S-N. I think it's my way of compensating for the fact that I know very little about maps- the odd/even numbering thing is about the only map guidance fact I have, so I cling to it.

Texan99 said...

When someone else is driving, I have absolutely no idea where I've gone.

Gradual curves throw me, too. We live on the Coastal Bend of Texas near the shore. I've been here six years but still can't stay oriented on a compass as I drive along the curved shore.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Jonathan - I perceive 89 as running SE-NW, and have trouble with it when it runs E-W.

Donna B. said...

It is my opinion that being lost in or around Williamsburg is a sign of great intelligence.

Though I drove there myself several times, I was almost always "turned around". My daughter finally just told me not to try to go anywhere until she was out of class.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

70% of W&M comes from VA, of course, and oriented to the place unconsciously on school field trips along the E-W Duke of Gloucester route, which extends nicely into the eastern campus. I'll wager most of the other students got introduced to it prior to driving, and on DOG St as well. If you do that, perceiving the other roads as 45 degree angles won't be too far off, because they are 60 switching to 90.

But I came in from the bus/train station N of CW directly to Blow Gym on foot, and that was the foundation of my understanding ever after.

I must not have been such a map fanatic then. I did not look at maps of the place beforehand, and did not know that CW abutted the campus.