Dark and Magical Places by Christopher Kemp
Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation
Publication date: 20/01/2022
Imprint: Wellcome Collection
Has the GSP dulled my sense of navigation? I believe it has. My smartphone provides instant gratification when I pull up a map while looking for a new cafe on a strange street. I am sure many of us are unaware of our pre-smartphone navigational capabilities. I miss forming mental maps of landmarks in new places because my phone does it effortlessly. Navigation is a fundamental aspect of human existence that often goes unnoticed by us.
Christopher Kemp opens the intriguing world of neural systems that help us navigate the world around us. We meet neurons like place cells, grid cells, and head-direction cells along the way. Meeting several scientists we understand how various distinct regions in the brain like the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, the parahippocampal place area, and the caudate nucleus are involved in a coordinated effort to create mental maps and help us navigate.
Our brains construct cognitive maps which inform us about the scale, distance, and direction of the spaces we occupy in the real world. The reason why some people are poor navigators is that they use the caudate nucleus instead of the hippocampus for cognitive maps. Meanwhile, a fascinating third chapter takes us through the discovery and findings about the enigmatic place cells. These cells acquire and process spatial information across time to maintain and constantly update our cognitive maps.
My favorite chapter is about the Neanderthals, their disappearance, and the rise of modern humans. One of the myriad reasons the Neanderthals were not successful could be the expansion of the parietal lobe in Homo sapiens as seen from endocasts. Homo sapiens evolved long-distance relationships with other humans that must have involved symbolic representation as seen in art and language. Our cognitive maps became more favorable. We navigated better and anticipated outcomes that were crucial for survival.
The second half of the book dives into the curious navigational capacities of animals. The Sahara Desert ant navigates without any cognitive map or landmarks- called dead reckoning. And the African dung beetle uses the polarized light of the Milky Way to travel. These examples show a plethora of different techniques used across the animal kingdom for navigation.
Kemp finishes with the cultural aspects that affect navigational abilities and whether there are genetic or gender differences in how people perceive their surroundings. I have reservations here about findings that show Scandinavian countries do better in navigating. Women in the global south are behind in navigational skills because of socioeconomic restraints like less access to vehicles. Less access to vehicles or technology doesn’t diminish the ability to canvass tight-knit neighborhoods. Cities like Cairo and Calcutta are old and have arterial lanes tightly packed together. Remembering landmarks in such close-spaced quarters is a skill that is vastly different from knowing your way around in cars.
Kemp’s figurative writing makes it easier to understand the neuroanatomical descriptions throughout the book. The author blends his own navigational woes as we move along with the research findings. Intense and enjoyable especially for neuroscience buffs.