- The Geographer’s Eyes and Feet
Presidential Address delivered to the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers, 76th annual meeting, Lake Tahoe, CA, September 26, 2013
Scene 1: Eyes and Feet
What did we ever do before cell phone apps? What did we do before GPS? Automobiles, how did we live without them? How did we socialize? How did we find out what we wanted to know? How did we find our way around? These questions, like so many questions in our technology-dependent lives, often underestimate our human abilities because the answers to these questions—at least distilled down and in conjunction with our brains—is that we used our eyes to observe and our feet to explore.
Let me be clear: I’m not setting out to trash technology. I’m not a Luddite, a neo-Luddite, nor even a Primitivist. No, the technology that most of us have in our pockets, purses, briefcases, backpacks, and cars has many benefits. In a single word, the chief benefit—the great promise—of all these technology tools, from the Internet to the automobile, is “time.” They save us time, and who amongst us in our fast-paced lives does not want a little extra time?
My contention here, however, is that we as a society have become too dependent on these gadgets and services and less in touch with our minds, bodies, and environments. Let me give you an example many of you are quite familiar with: mental mapping. We humans are surprisingly good at developing mental maps, and we do this through wayfinding. Wayfinding is the process where we gather information and make decisions to orient ourselves and move through space. This involves: (1) identifying your location, (2) determining your destination, (3) developing a route to get from your location to your destination, and (4) navigating along the route. The urban planner Kevin Lynch researched how characteristics of the urban landscape affect how well we remember locations and found that commonly used urban features like paths, nodes, landmarks, edges, and districts create [End Page 13] an image in our minds. They are “imageable” features, and they form the exoskeleton for the maps in our minds.
Through time and with practice, we construct stronger mental maps. Of course, these maps are not properly cartographic, but their strongest characteristic is the connections that are made—the paths that link nodes together. As we build up knowledge of an area, we see edges (boundaries) and districts (neighborhoods). Landmarks orient us and guide us along our way. By remembering where these features exist and the connections the features have to each other, we construct strong mental maps. As we develop our mental maps and wayfinding skills, we become more comfortable and confident about moving through a landscape and exploring new places. Yes, mental maps challenge our minds—we commit information to memory, calculate distances, rotate angles, and approximate spatial relationships (Frankenstein 2012, 12SR).
Scientists believe these skills grow stronger with use. The cognitive neurologist Eleanor Maguire found that spatial experience changes brain functions, and even brain size. Her study focused on London taxi cab drivers, who are famous for finding their way to almost any London location. In one part of her study, she hooked the cab drivers up with electrodes and monitored their brain waves, and while blindfolded, she asked them to reconstruct certain routes. As they did this, computers picked up a great deal of activity in the right-hand rear sector of the brain, the base of the hippo-campus (Maguire, et al. 2006, 1095). In another part of her study, she found that the typical taxi driver had a larger than normal hippocampus, and the more years a driver was on the job, the larger his hippocampus. Her study found that spatial experience changes the brain (Maguire, et al., 2006, 1099).
Again, I’m not suggesting that we abandon GPS. Undoubtedly, GPS, like most of the technologies I refer to today, helps us save time and maybe much more. My assertion, however, is that technology becomes a crutch. The more we rely on GPS, the less we build up our mental maps and develop our...