Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

A Scientist Homes In On Our Sense Of Direction

In the modern world, those of us with iPhones or in-car GPS units can locate our positions on the planet easily and accurately. Yet without electronic assistance, as behavioral psychologist Colin Ellard demonstrates in his new book, You Are Here, contemporary Westerners consistently find themselves disoriented and lost. For human beings, navigation and wayfinding have very nearly become lost arts, practiced primarily by remote indigenous peoples for whom an inaccurate turn can prove fatal.

For all our geographical cluelessness, though, humans maintain a profound connection to the three-dimensional spaces their bodies inhabit. In human psychology, You Are Here argues, simple geometry rules. We are highly attuned to the shapes of our environments, seeking out spaciousness, for example, because it provides us with a wide-angle view of potential threats to our safety. A room's geometric symmetry instinctively weighs heavily on our choices of where to situate ourselves within it.

Indeed, Ellard cites a study at the Tate Gallery in London that demonstrates that it doesn't matter where specific paintings are placed in a given exhibition; people gravitate to the same locations in the gallery.

By alternating between descriptions of experiments and entertaining re-creations of real-world examples, Ellard walks readers through those mental glitches and quirks that make modern human navigation such a dicey enterprise. In a way, he lays bare the algorithms your brain follows — predictably and rationally, the reader discovers — in order to determine your body's location.

Experience and experiment demonstrate that there is an overtly scientific method behind the madness of disorientation. To illustrate, Ellard brings readers into windowless rooms and laboratory labyrinths, then out to Middle Eastern deserts and Arctic ice sheets. Along the way, he explains how, using traditional navigational techniques, Bedouin nomads and the Inuit manage to stay "found" in their barren, relatively featureless environments.

We may never learn how to pinpoint our locations based on the careful analysis of camel dung, as the Bedouins do, but with a little less iPhone and a little more attention to detail, we can reach a better understanding of where "here" actually is — be it on the beach in Micronesia, amid a gaping fjord in Norway, or even aboard a Heathrow-bound 767 streaking over Newfoundland in the middle of the night.

Ellard's enthusiasm for his subject enlivens each chapter of his book, making even the most mundane entomological experiment or exegesis of psychological geekspeak feel fresh and fascinating.

In any room, in any hemisphere, camper, climber and carpooler alike will find plenty to delight them in You Are Here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Simon Maxwell Apter
Simon Maxwell Apter is assistant editor at Lapham's Quarterly, where he also runs the Web site. His commentaries and reviews have appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is also a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.