Confessions of a Spatial Navigator

DSCN3945Can science explain why some transit system maps are so much better than others? Alex Hutchinson has an excellent article in the Canadian newsmagazine The Walrus on how increased reliance on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for navigation may be reshaping our brains. Might this be related to the difficulty of getting good maps of a transit system?

Humans have two methods of navigation.  Spatial navigators can construct maps in their heads as they experience a place, and also tend to be good at using maps as navigational aids.  Narrative navigators  navigate by creating or following verbal directions.  For spatial navigators, the answer to the question where? is a position in mapped space.  For narrative navigators, the answer to where? is a story about how to get there.  Obviously, this is a spectrum; many of us are in the middle with partial capabilities in both directions.  (I think we probably all know this from our own experience, but according to Hutchinson, the definitive academic study showing this difference has the amazingly recent date of 2003.)

Taxi drivers, obviously, have to be spatial navigators, because they must constantly plot courses for trips they’ve never made before.  Before the advent of GPS, this requirement actually shaped their brains.  Hutchinson writes:

For those of us who have grown up in the reassuring embrace of grid-patterned streets that run straight and don’t change names every two blocks, Old World cities like London — recently declared the most confusing city in the world by a 12,500-person Nokia Maps survey — present huge challenges. So pity the cabbies. Before getting behind the wheel of a black cab, would-be drivers have to pass a test called the Knowledge, which requires them to memorize some 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks, a task that takes two to four years.

A cognitive map featuring that level of detail, as you might imagine, requires a fair amount of storage space, and, sure enough, University College London neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire found that the back part of the hippocampus in London taxi drivers is enlarged compared with that of the general population. The longer they’ve been driving, the bigger the gap. Maguire also found, though, that the front part of the hippocampus gets correspondingly smaller. “So there is a price to pay for their expertise,” she says. This difference showed up in tests of visuo-spatial memory, including one in which the drivers were asked to memorize the position of sixteen objects on a table, then put them back in place after they’d been removed. “They were incredibly poor at doing that,” she says. While it isn’t yet clear whether this happens because the requirements of storing a map of London take over other parts of the brain or because of some other process, what these studies do make clear is the brain’s plasticity: its very structure is shaped by the demands we place on it.

(I already knew this.  My thinking is so spatial that when someone tries to give me directions over the phone I have to follow along on Google Earth, or draw a little map based on what they’re saying, before I can use the information.  Correspondingly, I would be dreadful at the “memorize the position of sixteen objects” test, as I’m constantly misplacing things.  So my brain would almost certainly show the same distortion adaptation that the study found in London taxi drivers.)

Hutchinson goes on to suggest that the part of our brains that can remember maps is going to diminish as we all come to rely on GPS navigation systems.  Many taxi drivers today rely on those systems for everything.  It’s often apparent, if you chat with them, that they lack the mental map of the city on which the previous generation relied.  Of course, they may be more likely to know where their keys and wallet are, so on balance that could be a good thing.

But I suspect some people will always need and want maps.  In fact I hope so, because only with a spatial understanding of your city can you be attentive to certain of its possibilities and needs.  Ideally, we’d get good training as children on how to develop both capabilities.

Meanwhile, I wonder if the difference between spatial and narrative navigation lies at the core of the very common mutual incomprehension between the planning and marketing departments in transit agencies.   It is a common complaint of planners that marketers don’t understand the values that drove the design of the network and therefore aren’t promoting it in ways that feature those values.  Marketers, in turn, can claim that the planners are talking in abstractions and don’t know how to connect with the typical user.  Planners must be spatial navigators, but marketers are often experts in crafting stories, comfortable with narrative, and this can correlate (I realise I’m conjecturing here) with a preference for narrative navigation.   (Again, most of us are on a spectrum between these extremes.)

Mpls map for blog To take a really obvious example, most transit planners understand the foundational role of frequency (how often a service runs) and span (how early or late it runs) in determining the usefulness of a service, so they tend to understand the value of Frequent Network mapping, which highlights the frequent all-day services to show you where you can go without waiting long.  In this example from Metro Transit in Minneapolis (click to enlarge) the detail of all services is very complex, but yellow highlight draws your attention to the Frequent Network where you can count on service within 15 minutes.

Like the map apps that show where you can get to on transit in 45 minutes, Frequent Network maps are designed to be useful to spatial navigators who want to see their options in map form.  To an extreme narrative navigator, frequency and span are abstractions.  If you’re following the directions of a trip planner, you don’t need to know how frequent a service is or how late it runs.  The trip planner tells you when it comes — that’s all you need to know.

Conjecture:  Is the low informaton content of many published transit maps — notably the failure to distingush visually between a route that runs every two minutes all day and one that runs once every Wednesday — perhaps an expression of the fact that marketing managers, in whom these maps are usually entrusted, often tend to be more narrative than spatial in their own navigation?  What would happen if transit agencies entrusted map design exclusively to people who navigate spatially, who are therefore intensely sensitive to a map’s quality and information content?  By the same token, the design of trip planning software, which produces narrative directions about how to get somewhere on transit, should be entrusted to narrative navigators.  Only a spatial navigator can tell you if a map works.  Only a narrative navigator can tell you if directions do.

In the comments, I’d welcome pointers to data that goes one way or the other on this question.  I’m throwing out an idea here, not expressing a fixed opinion.  The one thing I’m sure of is that my brain is as distorted as a London taxi driver’s, so I need help from yours!

Next post on this topic is here.

34 Responses to Confessions of a Spatial Navigator

  1. Pantheon October 25, 2009 at 5:50 am #

    This article makes me angry, because it is yet another example of technology dumbing down humanity. I am an extreme spatial navigator, and I will never use a GPS for the same reason I never take medication when I get sick: the presence of an artificial crutch to take the place of my natural response weakens that response over time.
    It is important to state that narrative navigators are grossly inferior to spatial navigators in their ability to find their way. This is because the narrative becomes useless the moment you go off track. Let’s say you are a London cab driver following your GPS’s orders. What if you miss that left turn? Now you are lost. What if the street the GPS wants you to go down is closed for construction? You don’t know what to do. The narrative breaks down unless every single element in the narrative chain goes as planned. Telling London cab drivers they don’t need to know London because they have their GPS is like telling commercial airline pilots they don’t need to know how to fly planes because they have their autopilot. Or like telling a mathematician he doesn’t need to know arithmetic because he has a calculator.
    There are also huge gender differences in this. Men are far more likely to be spatial navigators and women narrative navigators. This is because in prehistoric times men had to go off and hunt and then find their way back to the women and children. You have often heard of women who are exasperated because their husband refuses to stop and ask for directions. But women don’t realize that men have a far more sophisticated sense of direction and space, and we often aren’t nearly as “lost” as it may appear.
    The gender difference is quite apparent if you actually do ask someone for directions. A man is more likely to say something like “go north three blocks, then turn west”. Women will almost never use terms of absolute direction like “north” and “west” because they do not have that kind of spatial picture of themselves in relation to geography. A woman will be more likely to say “go up this street, and turn left at the coffee shop”. They are telling you a story of how to get there.
    I find the automated transit planners on transit websites to be terrible. Again, they depend on getting everything in the sequence right. It may say I need to take Bus X, and connect to Bus A. But what if I miss Bus X? If the next Bus X doesn’t come for another 30 minutes, but Bus Y comes along, then as a spatial navigator I will ask the driver of Bus Y where he is going. I might realize that Bus Y will intersect with the route of Bus B, and that Bus B will take me within five blocks of where Bus A would have taken me. As a spatial navigator, I can deal with exigencies and think my way through a situation like this, whereas the narrative navigator is stuck waiting half an hour for the next Bus X. Pity them.
    Incidentally, this is another huge problem with narrative navigational devices for transit. Let’s say in the above example that my destination was the museum. Bus A is the only bus that goes right to the museum, but Bus B goes within five blocks of the museum, and Bus C goes within seven blocks. Depending on where you are coming from and the frequency of the various routes, any one of these buses might be the best for you. (As but one of many examples, if Bus C goes right by your house, better to take that one and walk the seven blocks than to connect to Bus A and have to wait). But automated transit planners will always default to a route that involves Bus A, because it goes to the museum.
    Life is unpredictable. You need to be able to know where you are and think through your situation, whether you are a prehistoric man hunting for venison or a modern day dilettante heading to the museum. And transit maps should be navigational tools to provide you with the information you need to figure things out for yourself, even if your original plans went awry.

  2. Russ October 25, 2009 at 4:06 pm #

    Jarrett, I am not sure why you interpreted “widely cited” as definitive? The neuro-psychology research in this area is obviously new, but separating way-finding into spatial and narrative navigation dates back to the 19th century, with significant works through the 1920s. Even in urban terms, we can date it back to Lynch’s “Image of the City”.
    The cite I have for this research, incidentally, is Erik Jonsson’s “Inner Navigation”. He adds two underlying senses to way-finding – a “sense of direction” and a “sense of location” – and attempts to explain how they orient a person to their internal cognitive map, and, by corollary, and usefully for a transit planner, how to orient someone else to a cognitive map. I don’t think your question about map-making is meaningful though (surely part of a narrative on transport includes waiting?). I’m much more inclined to believe that non-frequentist transport maps reflects a gap between the physical perspective of a system and the user perspective of a system. Narrative and spatial systems interact and overlap in similar ways, even if we have preferences for one over the other in certain circumstances.
    But also interesting, I’ve always thought, was the research that shows how a transport system can define/distort a person’s cognitive map (see Vertesi). When way-finding, we are largely limited to where transport connects, and when we get there, if it is unfamiliar, the transit stop is practically our only point of orientation. Transit maps that focus on the physical layout of the system put the cart before the horse. Maps and directions that tell people where they are in relation to places and landmarks are much more user friendly.

  3. Dave in KY October 25, 2009 at 8:39 pm #

    Jarrett, I think you’re overthinking this a bit much. Anyone can follow “Walk to 4th and Broadway and board the #4 southbound”. You don’t need a narrative thinker to design route planning software. You need a a UI designer and an algorithms person, and maybe a data munger.
    @ the guy who’ll never use GPS: when you miss the turn, it recomputes the new optimal route. AFAIK the only thing it doesn’t do well is know that you’re going to miss the turn in advance (because there’s a chicken truck turned over blocking all the lanes). Beats starving to death for 2-4 years because you can’t find a job.

  4. Angus Grieve-Smith October 25, 2009 at 8:59 pm #

    Another thought-provoking post, and thanks, Russ, for the link to the Vertesi study! I’ve posted a reaction.

  5. Jarrett at October 25, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Anyone can follow “Walk to 4th and Broadway and board the #4 southbound”.
    Actually, Dave, that’s a nice example of directions that include the spatial navigator’s perspective. Pure narrative navigators do not need to know which way is south, nor do they assume that you know how to get to 4th & Broadway, or which of these streets is which.

  6. Brent October 25, 2009 at 9:33 pm #

    I would be interested to hear reactions from spatial navigators on whether diagrammatical maps that significantly distort geometry (such as London’s) — as opposed to more purely geographical maps — are a help or a hindrance.

  7. EngineerScotty October 25, 2009 at 11:23 pm #

    Not to be rude–but it’s obvious you’ve never used a GPS, as you don’t seem to know how the things operate. :) If you DO miss a turn, modern navigation systems will quickly advise you of that fact, and re-compute a new route to your destination. It may involve turning around if possible, or it may involve the next exit off the freeway instead of the one you missed.
    I, too, am a spatial navigator. I do have a Garmin, but seldom use it in any place I’m familiar with (unless I’m looking for an address on a minor street in an unfamiliar neighborhood)–I find them most useful when driving in unfamiliar territory where I don’t have the required context to orientate myself.
    GPS systems are tools. I don’t think for one minute that using a GPS to get from A to B will somehow cause my mind to rot away. Perhaps if a person uses it for EVERY trip and never bothers to familiarize themselves with an area, they may become dependent on the thing, but I’ve never met such a person.
    My biggest problem with the GPS gadget I currently own is it takes damn forever to re-acquire the satellites once you drive the rental car out of the covered garage of the airport in LA… but that failing doesn’t make me want to get rid of it.
    Your post reminds me a bit of some of the strutting I did as a CS major back in school (early 90s), wherein I would proudly boast of my disdain for such things as graphical user interfaces and high-level programming languages–real programmers, thought I, wrote code to the bare metal and didn’t use such sissy things. As I have gotten older and wiser, I realized that the things that I once derided as “crutches” are actually quite useful and permit me to do work faster. Skill in the art is knowing how to go back to the basics when necessary; not in doing it every time because you want to prove yourself.

  8. Jarrett at October 26, 2009 at 5:04 am #

    Russ. Thanks for the excellent links. But who is this “user” you’re referring to? In defining a “user perspective” as the opposite of a “physical perspective” and suggesting that landmarks make directions “user friendly,” aren’t you just expressing a bias in favor of the needs of users who navigate by narrative?
    Spatial navigators like me simply must have a map, so much so that when faced with an unfamiliar territory and no map, we draw the map in our heads as we explore. Show me the physical layout of your city, showing how the transit system interacts with the city’s landmarks and structure, but please don’t tell me to turn left at the green house, which has probably been painted blue since you last drove by.

  9. Jarrett at October 26, 2009 at 5:12 am #

    Brent. Big topic. My experience is that when I’m inside the transit system, and trying to navigate within the network, schematics like the London Underground map are helpful, assuming I know what station I’m going to. The inside of the Underground is a simplified world in which streets are replaced by lines, distance is measured in the count of stations, and direction is defined by endpoints of a line. For that limited “world” the Underground map is fine.
    But we also need maps showing how the lines and stations lie in the real geography of the city, as part of maps of each district. I agree that we probably overuse Underground-style maps and don’t spent enough time looking at maps showing the network’s role in the City. The Paris Metro map that appears in stations is overlaid on a city map and done to scale, and on balance that’s what I prefer if it can be done clearly.

  10. Teresa October 26, 2009 at 12:09 pm #

    I’m with you, Jarrett. I need to have a map. Not that I can’t find my way otherwise, because I can, but that I need to know where I am, where I’m going, where I can go alternatively, what can be a Plan B, etc. I’m a compulsive organizer, and that’s the way I work. 😉
    I have a question for you. When you are reading a book, and are interrupted, or put it down to go and do something else, when you pick it up again, do your eyes go immediately to the place where you left off? or do you search around until you find it? or something else?

  11. EngineerScotty October 26, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    Why would a streetsign which says “Broadway” not be a suitable landmark for a narrative navigator? While the spatial navigator might gain additional benefit from context, and the example above assumes a priori knowledge of where 4th and Broadway is–directions such as “walk down this street until you get to Broadway, turn left, and keep going until you reach the museum” seem suitable as narrative direction. Assuming that Broadway is well-marked, of course.
    Which reminds me of a funny story my middle-school German teacher taught me. His first trip abroad to Germany (he didn’t speak the language at that time), he was with a tour group who was in downtown Munich, and split up. The tour guide told the group to meet back in the same location in three hours. My teacher looked up for a street sign, and saw one that said… Einbahnstraße. :)

  12. Russ October 26, 2009 at 11:37 pm #

    Jarrett, the “user” is the person trying to navigate. A lot of the recent literature on navigation in the urban environment has come out of work down on Human Computer Interfaces (HCI) where the term “user” is common.
    You answered your own question on whether landmarks show a bias to one navigation method: they don’t. They are equally necessary for both methods, because a spatial navigator needs a way of orientating their cognitive map to the environment it represents.
    Neither a “user perspective” nor a “physical perspective” are narrative or spatially biased. A user perspective means doing what you do often at this blog: looking at a transport system from the perspective of someone using it. Most maps aren’t made from a user’s perspective, they are drawn by, or derived from, maps drawn by engineers, who are primarily concerned with the physical shape of the system (the mode, the physical position of the route, the nature of the path).
    Having knowledge of the physical layout of a city is important too, but maps overly focused on physicality have their limitations. Consider any map of Venice or Genoa, for example; the street network is so dense and confusing, a map that highlights the principal axes and landmarks is much more useful than one that merely shows all the streets. Similarly, for a large city, there is very little value in having a metro map drawn to scale as there is rarely a practical way to put street information in at a walkable scale. The bottom line is that map design depends on what information you are trying to convey to the user of it. The question is how knowledge of the way people navigate should effect map design?

  13. Jarrett at October 27, 2009 at 12:52 am #

    I’m not good at finding exactly where I left off reading, and usually end up starting from a point a little before where I stopped. Is that a feature of the brain-distortion of spatial navigators? Is not remembering a place in a book analogous to not remembering where I left my keys*?
    *another excellent reason not to own a car, btw

  14. Jarrett at October 27, 2009 at 1:04 am #

    Bravo to your last point, which is exactly the point I’m making about Frequent Network maps — the need for a map to show the levels of detail that are relevant to the user’s experience.
    Is that all you mean by a “map” drawn from a “user perspective”? I’m having trouble visualising a user vs physical axis that’s perpedicular to a spatial vs narrative axis, as you propose. Aren’t all maps at least purporting to describe a physical reality, distorted more or less to serve the needs of the user and/or the mapmaker?
    I guess I’m also confused by the term “physical perspective” as the opposite of “user perspective.” The opposite of “user perspective” is “somebody else’s perspective, like the bus company’s or the mapmaker’s or the government’s.” All of those interests sometimes explain why transit maps don’t provide the information the user needs in a way she can use. But is there really ever a map drawn from a pure “physical perspective”? Not even Google Earth is an unmediated “physical perspective”; even it is riddled with human judgments that reflect human interests that might conflict with the “user’s”.
    Forgive me if I’m just expressing ignorance of the literature. I’m a practitioner rather than a scholar, and haven’t had a chance to follow all of your leads.

  15. Jarrett at October 27, 2009 at 1:11 am #

    Yes, I agree that your proposed narrative directions would probably meet the needs of a narrative navigator, though as I’ve said, I’m the last person to ask about that.
    Of course, this assumes that when you say “walk down” you accompany this with a pointing gesture. More than once I’ve found myself in the middle of a street wondering which direction is supposed to be “down.” It’s as confusing for me as “north” is for a narrative navigator.

  16. Multimodal Man October 27, 2009 at 6:05 am #

    A few years ago my wife and I traveled from Seattle to southern Oregon on a holiday weekend. Traffic snarled and according to 511 it would continue to be jammed for several counties. The baby was upset. My wife was getting anxious. So we exited at Tacoma to take blue highways south as far as we could. I thought it may be more enjoyable.
    At some point I felt that it was clear the highway we had turned on (there were multiple decision points) was going more east than south. My wife was growing more and more anxious. I asked if she could look at the map and simply let me know where we were so I could decide what to do next. She about lost it. “I don’t know where we are!” she sobbed. Oops. I pulled over, looked at the map and pointed out our exact location (simply–to me–based on the geography and turns in the road we’d encountered) and determined we needed to back up 3-4 miles and take another road. We ate dinner at a city park before continuing south
    Hours later, the baby screamed for miles as we approached Vancouver. As we crossed into Oregon my wife had grown very anxious and I, weary of it all. She wanted to give up on our final destination for the night (near Silverton) and check in at a hotel. So finally at one very tense moment, I veered off I-205 just immediately after seeing a group of hotels. I didn’t bother to read the signs. I just exited. The baby fell asleep and my wife calmed down. But the exit only led to another highway, no access to the hotels. We drove in silence for several miles. Then my wife asked if I knew where we were. I admitted I didn’t. We did not speak for miles late. But I was sensing we were going the right direction and watching the highway signs from there out we arrived safely at our campsite where we stayed the rest of the night (it was midnight when we arrived). And that is how my wife turned 30 years old. Happily though, the rest of our marriage has much more blissful. I’ve learned not to expect my wife to be a walking GPS.
    I wish I would have known before that day that not all people are spatial navigators.
    That is my spatial navigator confession.

  17. Jeffrey Bridgman October 27, 2009 at 8:34 am #

    Tokyo does a similar thing.
    – We have network diagrams on trains that help you to navigate a system (easy to find online).
    – On platforms you can typical find a large geographically accurate map with all the subway lines. (Geographical map)
    – Stations have maps of the surrounding area with landmarks and important building to help you find your way once you’ve arrived at your destination.(Station area map) (Tokyo Station area map)
    Directions in Tokyo are often given by line, station, exit, and then narrative navigation or a simple map. There is no comprehensive street naming, so you really can’t give street names for navigation purposes, thus landmarks are a necessity in finding places.

  18. Jeffrey Bridgman October 27, 2009 at 8:46 am #

    I might add that this approach doesn’t work so well for bus systems. It is rather impractical to provide all those maps at every stop (although I saw plenty of places in Europe with WONDERFUL information provided at major bus stops).
    American cities with bus systems might have to go for trying their best to provide a system map that is clear yet also provides a geo-spatial framework to fit the network in (rather than just a network diagram). Or provide two system maps: one that is an abstract network diagram and one that is geographic in nature, showing where the lines go in relation to landmarks and streets….
    Also, some landmarks on maps are useful. For example, showing where Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower are on a Paris Metro map seems to me a useful thing to include to help someone orient themselves a bit better.

  19. EngineerScotty October 27, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    Sounds to me like you got off at OR 213 in Oregon City, after passing the hotels near High Rocks Park in Gladstone (at night you probably didn’t notice there’s a river between the hotels and the exit you took; with the only driveable crossing in the area being the freeway).
    Fortunately for you, OR213 heads straight to Silverton–and is probably faster than the way you planned to go (I-205 to I-5 to Woodburn to OR214 to Silverton).

  20. Tabitha October 27, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    Pfft. Everybody knows that we chicks dig maps.

  21. Pantheon October 28, 2009 at 5:37 am #

    Wife is woman. You are man. Must go club deer over head now.

  22. Rail Life October 28, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks for the link to the walkscore transportation map. I was familiar with Walkscore but not their transportation planning map. I always find good stuff here. :-)

  23. Grandma October 28, 2009 at 4:18 pm #

    Extrapolating a bit from educational research, spatial navigators are probably known as visual-spatial learners as opposed to audio-sequential learners. (Upside Down Brilliance) V-S learners have two other characteristics that are interesting. One is that they need to know the whole before they can even learn the parts. So, looking at a map of just one section of the city without knowing where it is relative to the whole is quite unsatisfying. Learning a dance routine one step at a time is almost impossible without seeing the whole thing done several times. The second characteristic is that sequences are very difficult. I know this best from dance lessons. After the instructor has gotten to the fourth part of the sequence without that introductory demonstration of the whole, my mind goes blank. It isn’t that I don’t understand the words, but the whole system short circuits. This is not my personal failing. It happens to many of the spatial dance students. It might have happened to many of us when we learned long division. It likely would happen with narrative directions also if I ever listened to them or read them.
    Another bit of perspective. As an extreme visual-spatial female person of considerable age, I have observed that my word skills have increased over the years and my visual-spatial skills and visual memory have decreased. I used to know where my keys were and where the keys and socks of everyone in the family were because I automatically noted visually where things were as I saw them in unusual places. Now, I am not as adept at that but I can indulge in more word tasks with ease.
    Another way in which this extreme V-S person has adapted is to use my GPS as a two dimensional map with north always on the top of the screen. I find that following the three dimensional diagram that is always changing orientation means that after a few turns I do not know where I am or which way I am heading. That may mean that I cannot solve the problems that sometimes arise from following the GPS too literally. I also feel that GPS devices are a great boon for little old ladies who want to go places that they have never been before. It has taken a great deal of the stress out of going to new places and having new adventures.

  24. Adam Parast October 29, 2009 at 7:37 am #

    I’m a completely visual-spatial learner. Maps are my best friend. When I’m in a new city I’m constantly looking for landmarks, subway stations, street names that allow me to anchor and orient myself on the map. I can navigate by directions but I don’t enjoy it. If I don’t have the directions written down I will forget them in 5 minutes. But if I drive somewhere once I’ll be able to get back, years later.

  25. Scott October 29, 2009 at 8:43 am #

    I remember having a conversation with a geographer friend of mine who I was shocked to learn had a GPS device in his car. I made the argument that it was counter to his geo-senses and would hamper his ability to formulate mental maps in his head.
    When I think about how I get to know an area, it is through observation of that area and relating it to a map, thereby creating a mental map. The GPS Navigational units remove the need for spatial awareness of an area and would render us unable to navigate the area with it’s help. Couple that with other distractions (music, conversation, etc.) and you might be hard pressed to retrace your steps in a slightly more complex route.
    When I think of how I find something when I don’t know it’s exact location, I often use previous experience with an area to dead-recon where something is at. This would involve knowing something about an area in which to provide context to what you are seeking. Even though a GPS unit may direct me straight to where I am heading, by using my mental map and dead reckoning I can typically find something just through its context to what I already know.
    On another note…there is some wonderful research about Polynesian way-finding that describes the skills used to paddle a canoe hundreds of miles across the ocean and much of it involves being a spatial navigator, knowing what direction waves and winds head to find a needle in a haystack. Sorry, no good links off hand.

  26. calwatch October 30, 2009 at 12:02 am #

    I think the GPS maps that show the dot of where you are are useful, but I agree that turn by turn directions are not needed, at least not in my case. The iPhone mapping application has been helpful in finding out where I am. The compass in the new iPhones would have come in handy one night when I was trying to navigate the campus of UC Riverside in the dark. The most visible landmark, the clock tower (, is lit up at night, but it is very short compared to the clock tower I am used to at Berkeley. Therefore, I was literally walking steps and trying to determine direction by seeing how far my dot moved on my iPhone. I asked for directions for where I was going (I needed a library book to do an assignment that night, so couldn’t wait until the day), but again, the turn here and there was unhelpful since I couldn’t see the landmarks that ordinarily would be plainly obvious in the day.

  27. Scott October 31, 2009 at 8:34 am #

    Since you are essentially using a map on your iPhone it would be no different than if you were using a map, only you are given a reference point. This is spatial navigation I suppose? Using a map we would have to triangulate our position (or just get some context) to make the map useful.

  28. Nathanael November 3, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    “Only a spatial navigator can tell you if a map works. Only a narrative navigator can tell you if directions do.”
    I agree 100%.
    I can do both, but I am more comfortable with spatial navigation (which I take to like a duck to water). However, I have used narrative navigation to (for example) get between lines at hideously complicated subway stations.
    Interestingly, I am an audio learner rather than a visual learner…. except for maps. If you could put a map into a soundtrack, it would be ideal, but I still don’t see how to do that…..

  29. samussas March 1, 2010 at 3:55 am #

    All this reminds me of a mis-adventure that happen to me last year, while I was in Tokyo for the first time.
    One day, I found myself more or less lost in the street mesh around Tokyo Tower. I knew where I wanted to go but didn’t really how to go there by foot. I had a sense of the general direction so I followed a street. And then I found a street map at a crossroad great! I look at it start to proceed. I walk a bit, turned and since I didn’t have any visual on my goal I looked again at a map. Walk a bit more until I noticed I was going back from where I came. Schocked, I look for another map found one. Look at it and felt strange. I cross the street and look at the map there… It was not oriented the same way as the map on the other side of the street!
    So, get this, Tokyo’s street maps are not “geographically” oriented or, if you prefer, they are not shown pointing northward like maps usually are. I think, and this is pure conjecture, that they follow traffic flow. I had then to try to make their maps coincide with my mental map of the city. That was not an easy and painless process. Hopefully, I found one visual landmark to guide me. Just thinking about those maps still makes my brain throb.

  30. Brandon June 15, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    I never thought about this before, but i am also a spacial navigator. Im great with maps and figure out any area ive seen a map or satellite view of. But directions given to me are in one ear, out the other. Though I can follow printed directions (take exit 2 blah road, make a right…”) i find ive always found it straining.

  31. Ram0823 June 24, 2010 at 6:19 pm #

    I always knew there was a reason why I absolutely hate GPS systems. I am a spatial navigator through and through. I love maps and can normally remember how to get somewhere after having physically driven or walked there only once or twice. I love cities with grid systems and, especially, DC with its grid and grand boulevard systems laid over each other by L’Enfant. I’m in college studying to be a transporation planner because I love thinking about the way cities are layed out and how rail mass transit can integrate itself into the city fabric and better connect the city as a whole.

  32. Aaron August 9, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    love this post. and your other on frequency mapping.
    This speaks so clearly to me. I’m a spacial navigator for sure. My wife calls me a walking human map. I literally see maps in my head whenever I’m out somewhere and just visualize where I’m going and seem to be able to figure it out without needing instructions.
    Bus maps in particular frustrate me because I never really know where the stops are or when the thing is coming. It’s just a line on the map and then I have to go and figure out when it is coming, if the service even runs today, etc.
    Is there a transportation standards organization that could set forth some guidelines to help agencies develop frequency maps? I know street map visuals probably grew organically, but maybe someone could help planners to identify frequency level guidelines and a few simple classifications?

  33. Jarrett at August 9, 2010 at 9:38 am #

    @Aaron.  I'm pretty sure national standards would be more hindrance than help to transit agencies, who need to think this through in their own circumstances.  Google Transit, however, could invent its own standard for doing frequency mapping with the data they already have.  And I'd be happy to help!

  34. Alex August 30, 2010 at 8:54 am #

    Has anyone yet linked to this new york times article:
    Starting on page two are languages that only allow navigation by cardinal directions as they do not have words for “left” or “right.”