The Science and Art of Human Navigation

Published on Wednesday 11 September 2019

I marked the end of the summer with an inspirational day of presentations at the Cognitive Navigation Symposium. The speakers and audience were a mix of academics and practitioners. As a wayfinding consultancy, it was good to explore the research underpinning what we do. The programme segued from insect/animal navigation; through to neuroscience; design and dementia. The prelude to all, is that navigation is a fundamental requirement for any living creature that can move.

The Birds, Bees and Role of Technology

It is fascinating how insects, birds and sea creatures can travel thousands of kilometres to a specific place, using a range of sensing techniques.  While throughout history navigation has been a significant challenge for us humans. Except in societies such as the Polynesian Islanders, (where navigation was considered sacred skill and took years of training), we’ve have to rely on technology to help us.

From The Longitudinal Prize launched in the early eighteenth century to try and solve nautical navigation; to space exploration in the mid 1900s that paved the way for GPS and Satnavs. It is bizarre, that the most advanced animals on Earth, have had to use our superior intellect to develop technology, to do what comes naturally to turtles and the Monarch butterfly.

The cells in our brain that help with navigation are all found in the hippocampus. This area of the brain is also responsible for short-term memory. So, it’s no accident that this is one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by dementia and that loss of ability to navigate is an early symptom. What is a little alarming, is the impact that this reliance on technology, may be having on our brains. It seems that memory muscle is a real thing.  If you don’t use it – you’ll lose it. The takeaway is not to rely too heavily on Satnav.  It does you good to get lost once in a while.

Importance of Design

Human navigation aids aren’t just restricted to technology, urban design has a role too. In a discussion about wayfinding design, we were given some mind-blowing statistics on the cost of getting lost.  Apparently, a Government Department calculated that problems finding meeting rooms cost around them around £11m in lost productivity. While Tim Stonor, Space Syntax, commented on the correlation in the ‘bone’ structure of established cities across the world. Observing that although the design may have been organic, their natural adherence to spatial accessibility principles makes them inherently navigable. Causing Tim to wonder whether cities might be an extension of the human brain.

The day concluded with a focus on Dementia and a call to action to design more dementia friendly environments.  There were also pleas to move away from a health and safety, containment approach and focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t. Thereby ensuring that we all continue to lead fulfilling lives, whatever our personal challenges.

Given the ageing population, care homes will struggle to meet future demand. So we need to design everyday spaces that accommodate dementia needs now. From a wayfinding perspective, this means incorporating distinctive, clearly visible, easy to describe landmark objects within the design of schemes. No doubt, as is so often the case, we’ll find that by focussing on the specific needs of one particular segment of the population, we’ll improve the lives of a much wider constituency.

The Neuroscience of Wayfinding

Technology and its Impact on our Engagement with the Physical Environment


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Photo showing Monarch Butterflies
Courtesy Nature: The Monarch Butterfly migrates 3000 miles from Canada and the US to Mexico
Photograph showing the marine chronometer invented by Jon Harrison
The Marine Chronometer invented by John Harrison in the 18th century, that helped solve the problem of calculating longitude in marine navigation - courtesy Metadata Deluxe