You Are Here
Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall
By Colin Ellard
Doubleday, Hardcover, 9780385528061, 336pp.
Publication Date: July 7, 2009
List Price: $25.00*
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A fascinating exploration of human navigation, both feat and foible, in the age of GPS and GoogleEarth
We live in a world crowded by street signs and arrows. With the click of a computer mouse we can find exact directions to just about anywhere on earth, and with a handheld GPS we can find our precise latitude and longitude, even in the remotest of places. But despite all our advancements, we still get lost in the mall, can’t follow directions to a friend’s house and, on camping expeditions, take wrong turns that can mean the difference between life and death.
Many other species, however, have an innate sense of direction. Ants display surprisingly sophisticated behavior, traveling great distances without wasting a step. Monarch butterflies and migrating songbirds pilot even greater expanses, thousands of kilometers in some instances, to targets that they might never even have seen before. A homing pigeon can be driven halfway across a continent in a lightproof box and then, on release, find its way—unerringly-back to its loft. What is truly amazing, though, is that humans, the only animal that has come close to understanding how some of these magnificent navigational feats are performed, are rendered helpless by dense bush or even an unexpected turn in a maze of cubicles.
In You Are Here, psychologist Colin Ellard explains how, over centuries of innovation, we have lost our instinctive ability to find our way, as we traverse vast distances in mere hours in luxurious comfort. Some cultures, such as the Inuit, retain the ability to navigate huge expanses of seemingly empty space, as their survival depends on it, but the rest of us have been so conditioned by our built-up world that we don’t really know how to get from point A to point B.
Drawing on his exhaustive research, Ellard illuminates this disconnect from our world with great clarity and explains what it means, not just for our forays into the wilderness but for how we construct our cities, our workplaces, and even our homes and virtual worlds. Architects and city planners, he suggests, need to consider human behavior when designing human environments, and we all need to recognize that we are part of, not isolated from, the space around us.
Colin Ellard is an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo, the director of its Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments, and an international expert in the psychology of navigation. The results of his research have been published in scientific journals for more than twenty years. Ellard lives in, and regularly gets lost in, Kitchener, Ontario.
"Delightfully lucid....[Ellard writes with] charm and confidence....Ellard has a knack for distilling obscure scientific theories into practical wisdom."--Jonah Lehrer, The Times Book Review
"[O]ne of the finest science writers I've ever read....mind-expanding book....thoroughly digestible....You know you are in the hands of a good teacher when you look up from a book and your own ideas spill out like winnings from a slot machine. It's fun, pure fun."--The Los Angeles Times
“[A] smart, deeply satisfying exploration of how creatures from insects to humans handle the complexities of physical space…..his message is well-reasoned and important.” -- The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"This delightful, dense and illuminating book by Ellard, an experimental psychologist, explores how we navigate space and hone our sense of direction, despite being paradoxically spatially primitive and overly evolved. All animals, monocellular and multicellular alike, find their way to their basic needs–heat, light and nourishment–but while ants, for example, don't get lost and amoebas are guided by an “internal toolkit,” most human beings face unique difficulties. Unlike the Inuit, who have a superb sense of direction, most people find that the more sophisticated their environments, the weaker their grasp of space and direction. Ellard offers insights into how humans navigate their own homes and why they select certain spots for refuge–preferences influenced by gender, culture and history. He emphasizes the importance of orienting children to natural space as well as “virtual spaces,” and his chapter on cities serves as an excellent primer on urban planning and psychogeography, the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic environment on the emotions." (July)-- Publishers Weekly
“Colin Ellard’s new book, You Are Here, is a powerful inquiry into how we humans orient ourselves in space and identify places both familiar and new. As an architect, and someone who loves the experiential qualities of three dimensional space, this book took me on a journey to places I’d never even considered before–such as how other creatures on this planet orient themselves, and why it is that our prodigious brain can invent worlds that far outstrip the abilities of our more primitive orienting sensory apparatus. It’s a stimulating and provocative read for anyone who’s looking for a better understanding of how we process the world around us and orient ourselves within our habitations and living environments.”
--Sarah Susanka, architect and author of The Not So Big House series and The Not So Big Life
“Ants find their way back to their nest and bees to their hives with remarkable ease, and homing pigeons follow flight paths over incredible distances with uncanny accuracy, but humans seem to need a GPS to keep from getting lost in a mall. Colin Ellard not only delves into such phenomena with élan, he also introduces us to the world of navigational research, a world most of us don't even know exists. You Are Here is sure to direct you down some paths you've never explored before, and no, you won't get lost.”
–Joe Schwarcz, PhD, author of An Apple a Day
“In this fascinating journey to the wild frontiers of human navigation, Colin Ellard makes it clear that the space around us has made us the species we are. As Ellard pulls together his research into Inuit hunting parties, search and rescue teams, deep sea fishermen and the problems of the modern city dweller, he reveals how our sense of space and direction — and its limitations — has affected every civilisation on Earth. You Are Here is witty and engaging and crammed with profound insights. What’s more, it’s useful too: if you, or your keys, have ever got lost, Ellard can tell you how it happened — and how to stop it happening again.”
–Michael Brooks, PhD, author of Thirteen Things That Don’t Make Sense