Mountain Rescue Magazine Winter 2021

Follow the science? Over the last sixty years, geographers, cartographers, psychologists, neurologists, neurobiologists and others have produced hundreds of research papers on how humans develop cognitive navigation skills. It extends from the design of cartography and differences in how men and women navigate, to the impact of the GPS on the development of the brain’s cognitive navigation skills.

They provide clues to the differences in clients’ navigation ability and speed of learning as well as the importance of coherent and matching progressions between map scale and detail, the terrain/environment and navigation skills. However, as yet there has been no research into how we might apply the science to teaching the basics of navigation but there are some useful pointers which seem to be borne out by personal experience of navigation and teaching the subject. How did we navigate before maps — often referred to as ‘wayfinding’ (the task of navigating without the aid of a map)? It involves a process of becoming familiar with the terrain. The research identifies four key sets of brain cells, Boundary, Grid, Self Location and Heads-Up cells. Between the four of them they help create a mental

bird’s-eye-view map, based on observed landmarks and their relationship to each other and our relationship to them in terms of direction and distance. It requires the development of spatial awareness and memory which is a function of the hippocampus area of the brain. Freedom to explore unfamiliar objects and environments, early outdoor adventures, forest schools, and so on, stimulate the brain cells and develop the cognitive mapping processes. Social and gender influences can impact those developmental opportunities. This makes a sound argument for outdoor education when society is generally less comfortable with youngsters exploring independently, and research has shown that the habitual use of digital technology stifles the development of our cognitive mapping ability. The first time we visit a new area of hills we

normally start by following the paths (boundaries) to gain a general lay of the land before having the confidence to step away from them. It appears we are hard-wired to do this. We then link the linear features cutting corners across country creating a mental grid until we have enough landmarks and their relation to each other to explore the open areas with a degree of confidence. All four sets of brain cells work together mapping these stages and fire in unison as we travel around. As a toddler, becoming separated from our parents in a store is often our first experience of being lost. At this stage we probably don’t even have the spatial awareness or mental map to point in the direction of the car park. With age we gain more experience of our wider surroundings, our mental map and confidence expands ultimately to the point of coping in a white-out.



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