REVIEW: Dark and Magical Places by Christopher Kemp
An illuminating examination of how the brain helps us to understand and navigate space—and why, sometimes, it doesn’t work the way it should.
Navigation is one of the most complex tasks our brains perform. And we do it countless times a day—as we drive across town to the airport, or traverse the maze of a supermarket, or walk within our own homes. But why is it that some people are lost on their own street and others can seamlessly navigate a new city after visiting it once?
Fueled by his own spatial shortcomings, Christopher Kemp describes the brain regions that orient us in space and the specialized neurons—place cells and grid cells—that do it. He explains how the brain plans routes, recognizes landmarks, and makes sure we leave a room through a door instead of a painting. Along the way, he meets the scientists trying to understand the mental maps of modern humans, and Neanderthals, and lost people everywhere. Dark and Magical Places is an informed and entertaining journey into the mysteries of the mind.
My family joke with me about my ability to get lost. Seriously getting lost was the gift the fairy godmother gave me while I was still in my cradle. Whenever I know I will need to find my way somewhere I haven’t been before whether that’s in a different state, a different part of my state, or a restaurant downtown only reachable via one way streets, I panic. Because I know the odds are that I’m going to get lost at least once.
When I saw this book and read the description, I knew I’d found my people. Or, it turns out, some of the interviewees and scientists are my tribe while others are the ones blessed with navigational abilities I can only dream of. Kemp (my tribe) might be worse than I am but he writes in an engaging style and makes the subject matter easy to follow. A wide variety of various researchers and scientists shared their wisdom and findings and Kemp turned all this into a highly readable book.
The studies being done to probe into the still vast secrets of the brain are amazing and what is being discovered is – pardon the pun – mind blowing. I will take with me for a long time the image of a German scientist chasing after ants in the desert (he even managed to put little blackout goggles on them at one point) as well as the GPS fails that, among others, led a woman to drive for 900 miles when her journey was only supposed to take 40. The life altering effects of brain damage (not being able to find the bathroom in your own home or even find your home) are tragic. Age-old ways and means of navigating seemingly unfathomable places are being lost to technology. Studying Neanderthal genes is leading to increases in understanding of how differently they may have viewed the world compared to the upstart Homo Sapiens.
If you’re thinking of trying a hike in the wilderness – take your charged phone, a compass, a map, (and know how to use them) and let someone know where you’re going. The bad news is that we all (well, maybe not Scandinavians as they are navigating rock stars) need to work on our spatial skills as they are always deteriorating. The good news is that those of us who are helpless and hopeless at finding our way around can improve our skills (without relying totally on GPS). B
Are you one of us – the many, the bewildered, the directionally challenged? This site – Getting Lost – has some tests you can take to confirm (as most people already have a pretty good grasp on this) that you don’t have (m)any clues to where you are.