Running round ain't always wasting time

‘I’ve been learning that running round ain’t always wasting time.’ That’s a lyric from The Currys. This post is about how not only is running around not wasting time, but in fact it’s the only way we truly know where we are. The most recent Nobel Prize in medicine was given to the Mosers, who mapped the brain at work while navigating. They differentiate between grid cells, which fire as the brain is navigating through an environment, and place cells, which fire when the body is at a particular recollected location, using sensory cues. The social anthropologist Tim Ingold has attended also to the phenomenon of knowing where we are as we move through an environment, but through attending to the experience of wayfinding. Ingold differentiates in Being Alive between wayfaring (I move) and transport (I am moved). Wayfaring is messier and less efficient, but ultimately, if we connect Ingold’s work with the Moser’s, the hippocampus is really only firing when a person’s mind is actively engaged in finding their way. Along with navigating, the hippocampus is responsible for episodic memory, which is memory that can be recalled in the form of a story. It is also involved with future planning. In this sense, as we ‘run around’, we’re literally constructing stories about the environment that we’re in. A good example of this is the narrative that you construct when someone asks you for directions. Ingold brings up the differentiation between indexicality and non-indexicality. Indexicality for his purposes means the presentation of something from a particular viewpoint. For example, a USGS map of an area would be technically non-indexical because there is no one vantage point from which each point on the map is taken. When you use the Google ‘street view’ function, that’s an indexical view of the street because it’s from one viewpoint. Obviously, any map has interests and biases that bring its non-indexicality into question. Ingold uses these terms to explain how perception of the environment is indexical. Wayfinding, for Ingold, occurs in time rather than in space; it is a series of unfolding vistas. Just as places are known through movement through them, Ingold follows Casey, a theorist of space, in defining maps as a ‘network of interplace movement.’

My own experience resonates with Ingold’s idea. I go on bike rides with the cycling team, and often we’re in a big group and following someone who knows the route by heart. When I try to do a route alone, it’s almost impossible for me to find the way by picturing it from above on a map, and I’ve even failed to mark out a route I’ve taken numerous times when I have a map in front of me. But I can remember the entire route, which is sometimes three or more hours long, by picturing each place where I have to make a choice about where to go—an intersection, stoplight, etc.

Ingold’s implication in the essay ‘Maps, Wayfinding and Navigation’ is that ‘knowing, like perception of the environment in general, proceeds along paths of observation.’ In other words, ‘we know as we go.’ Ingold means that we know where we are as we move through our environment, but that statement can also be broadened out. Nicholas Carr, an author of books on technology and the brain, recently spoke about the effect of GPS use on humans’ ability to navigate (negative) at the Radcliffe Institute. The core of his argument was that ‘navigation opens a path from alienation to attachment.’ For Carr, we know not only where we are but who we are as we move through our environment. After Carr’s talk, so many people raised their hands to share what they believed to be a rebuttal to Carr’s argument, which was ‘but GPS is quicker and easier.’ Not a rebuttal. An essential part of wayfinding, of knowing, Carr argues, is precisely encountering difficulty. I wonder what relevance this has to knowing another mind in teaching and intellectual history.

Environmental historians have recently been interested in prepositions. At the American Society for Environmental History conference in San Francisco last spring, one panel discussed waterways in early America, and the attention historians are paying to prepositions such as ‘along’ and ‘around’ in written sources. This represents a phenomenological approach, meaning how we experience things shapes how they are conceptualized. This is one example of how historians can try to recover an historical experience of wayfinding, which has so many other implications for peoples’ knowledge of where and who they are. Indeed, running around ain’t always wasting time.

Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (2014).

Edward Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (1993).

Tim Ingold, Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (2011).

Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Dwelling and Skill (2000).