Last week, The New York Times ran a fascinating story about people in the Marshall Islands who navigated the ocean without instruments. It’s a long but worthwhile read, the gist of which is that the skill was being lost and some people were trying to save it.
One thing that particularly stood out about the story was a discussion about the cognitive affects of exploring. Apparently, humans create a cognitive map of their surroundings, and the way we create it matters. Cabbies, for example, actually change their brains by memorizing city maps. Conversely, “following a sequence of directional instructions, as we do when using GPS, does not activate the hippocampus at all.”
More importantly still, being lost and making mistakes actually helps us understand our world better:
Being lost — assuming, of course, that you are eventually found — has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective. From that standpoint, the greatest threat posed by GPS might be that we never do not know exactly where we are.
That’s a big part of the Tripping Over the World travel philosophy: that making mistakes, or “tripping,” is one of the most eye-opening and in-the-long-run rewarding parts of seeing the world.
In a physical, on the ground sense, this is what makes cities like Venice so pleasurable. On the one hand it’s hard to visit without getting lost, and on the other hand that’s kind of the whole point.
As cell phones become easier to use everywhere in the world, getting lost is becoming less and less a part of the way we get around. The first several times I visited Europe, I didn’t have any sort of GPS, and spent quite a bit of time wandering. On my recent visit to Istanbul, however, I whipped out Laura’s phone shortly after we arrived and navigated us directly to our hotel.
It was a very different experience. And though it was convenient at the time, as I reflect on the trip and the Times article, I wonder if changes in technology are leaving us with a slightly more shallow understanding of the surrounding world.
— Jim Dalrymple II