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Why we trust our maps even when we shouldn’t

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It seemed like a great idea. We were two American journalists visiting London and had a dinner party to attend. Why travel underground on the Tube when we could rent a couple of bicycles and see the city? But somehow it all went wrong.

We rode our bikes past Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, then headed south toward Pimlico, where we were expected for dinner. My friend Tom decided to take a scenic route, following the River Thames’ northern bank. At a critical intersection, his phone’s turn-by-turn GPS directions gave instructions that seemed counterintuitive, but we followed them, became totally lost, and arrived two hours late at our destination, rumpled and humiliated.

The irony of our tardiness was lost on no one. I was in London to attend a conference held by the Royal Institute of Navigation on the biology of animal navigation. What mechanisms allow sea turtles, whales, and migratory birds find their way across thousands of miles with unerring precision? Tom and I had perfectly illustrated the gaping divide between humans and the animal kingdom when it comes to orientation and navigation.

Humans are uniquely capable of becoming lost, so over time we’ve had to create a variety of strategies for finding our way. For one thing, our brains have evolved incredibly developed and large hippocampi, the neural locus of wayfinding and episodic memory, than would be predicted for other closely related species, which allows us to employ memory in the task of navigating. Additionally, we have long used diverse cultural practices for navigating, from environmental cues like the sun and stars to oral storytelling as mnemonic devices for recalling topographic information. In the Western world, the most dominant of these practices has........

© Fast Company