Book Review: Wayfinding


Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World
by M.R. O’Connor
368 pages
Expected Publication April30, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press

At one point or another, each of us has likely gotten lost. And as twenty-first-century technophiles, we have likely used a global positioning system to get ourselves un-lost. But before GPS and even before paper maps and compasses, our ancestors spread out across the world and learned to navigate vast swathes of seemingly featureless landscapes. How did they do it, and how do their descendants still do it? How does learning to navigate affect our brains? Did the ability to learn to navigate and then tell stories about it aid in humanity’s evolution?

In her new book, Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, journalist M.R. O’Connor investigates these questions, blending the stories of Inuits of Nunavut in northern Canada, Aborigianl Australians, and Pacific Islanders with current neurological studies of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is vital to developing spatial skills and memory.

After an incident where a GPS device led O’Connor to a desolate spot in the desert and the realization that, after buying a GPS-enabled smartphone in 2008, she had stopped relying on her own brain to figure out where she was, O’Connor set out to investigate the story and science of navigation. This led her all over the world, from the Canadian Arctic to the Australian Outback, and to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, where native peoples have been finding their way home across hundreds of square miles of open territory with a precision that baffled European explorers. What gave people like the Inuit, Aboriginal Australians, and Pacific Islanders such incredible abilities? Language and story. The Inuits’ many terms for snow describe formations of ice and snow that aid in orienteering. That is, if the snow is shaped thusly, the wind is from the north. In the outback, the Aborigines’ navigational stories are part of the Dreamtime, a religious and historical ideology nearly impossible for outsiders to define, but provides the Aborigines with a cultural memory dating back thousands of years and a network of paths and sites through thousands of square miles of desert.

“In some places I found individuals and organizations who consider the revival and practice of traditional navigation to be a matter of self-determination and cultural survival. By talking with some of them, I hoped to better understand the value and significance of these practices in the era of hypermobility, to perhaps even experience what the writer Robyn Davidson deems to be real travel: ‘to see the world, for even an instand, with another’s eyes’.”

O’Connor also delves into the navigational techniques of Pacific Islanders, who traveled across the Pacific ocean and settled on small islands hundreds of miles apart. Despite a Western belief that the Islanders found these places by accident, the Islanders know better, and have insisted upon it for years: their ancestors read the tides and ocean currents like a map, and used the stars to guide them across the watery expanses to the islands they knew were there without having seen them before.

Without being preachy about it, O’Connor makes is clear that Western explorers from the 1400s through the present day have given native peoples short shrift when it comes to navigation, and tells of how governments have enforced their own notions of proper behavior, education, and diet upon a people and place not suited to any of these. It is only recently that these people have been able to reclaim their heritage and their ancient skills- hopefully not too late to bring them back from the brink of extinction.

And, far from being a mystical sense of the world, O’Connor argues that the earliest human navigators were the first scientists. They noticed traces and tracks left by animals and weather, built hypotheses around those traces, and then proved their ideas right or wrong. By putting their ideas to the test, ancient humans used the scientific method to figure out how to move safely through the world and shared that knowledge with others.

“The human mind seems built to encode topographical information in the form of stories. In this way, we created repositories of chared memories in some places and developed deep, emotional attachments to them. We called those places home.”

But don’t think that Wayfinding is all about navigating without a compass. O’Connor also talks to neuroscientists about their research on the hippocampus and how it affects our growth and daily lives. And how our increasing reliance on technology to do our remembering and navigating for us can cause problems we didn’t expect. A damaged hippocampus causes us to live in a dream world where we cannot remember our own pasts or imagine our futures; a shrunken hippocampus could lead to depression or Alzheimer’s.

And yet, as GPS devices and smartphones grow in popularity and capability, we continue to outsource our thinking, becoming more passive as we let the technology determine where we go and how we get there.

The best works of nonfiction tell stories as gripping as the best works of fiction while simultaneously expanding our knowledge of the world. By skillfully blending individual and cultural stories from around the world with recent scientific developments, O’Connor describes the crimes of Western colonialism, the long-ignored wisdom of native peoples, and why it is important for us to look up from our screens and pay attention to the natural world. We are far more capable than our devices would have us believe, and in this gem of a book, O’Connor shows us what we can do if we put our minds to it.


I received a free copy of this eBook thanks to NetGalle and St. Martin’s Press in exhange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the work.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Wayfinding

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