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.