August 19, 2022

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Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are


“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an historical instinct about how our formative bodily landscapes form our landscapes of thought and feeling. The phrase “genius” within the trendy sense, in any case, originates within the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”

I discover myself interested by Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my very own childhood, trekking the identical paths with my mom that I as soon as trudged with tiny toes beside her, astonished on the flood of long-ago emotions speeding in with every step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I’ve not walked in many years.

The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of those astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in area and selfhood, illuminating the gorgeous interpenetration of the 2.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1893. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable remark that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to think about the cognitive handicap beneath this existential present:

Life on earth has created thousands and thousands of Ulyssean species enterprise epic journeys at scales each giant and small. Getting misplaced is a uniquely human drawback. Many animals are unimaginable navigators, able to enterprise journeys that far eclipse our particular person skills. The best migration on earth belongs to the Arctic tern, a four-ounce argonaut that travels every year from Greenland to Antarctica and again once more, a distance of some forty-four thousand miles. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary isx a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.

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One of the gadgets that an animal must navigate is a “clock” — an inside mechanism for measuring or maintaining time. The day by day mass migration of zooplankton on this planet’s oceans requires them to know when daybreak and nightfall are approaching. It would appear it is a easy response to gentle stimuli, however deep-sea zooplankton, which stay at depths under the place gentle penetrates, additionally migrate in accordance with the size of day at completely different latitudes. Even barely extra advanced migrations can demand a number of clocks.

Perhaps essentially the most astonishing inside clock belongs to the bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm, which swarms the tropical waters exactly fifty-seven minutes after sundown on every third night after the total Moon in the summertime. Such a feat means that this tiny marine organism, with a fraction of a fraction of the cognitive capability of a human, is internally outfitted with three completely different timekeeping devises: an everyday twenty-four-hour diurnal clock, a lunar clock with a 27.3-day cycle, and an interval timer to tick out the precise minutes previous sundown.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. (Available as a print and as a wall clock.)

O’Connor marvels on the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping gadgets that enables migratory species to maintain partaking of the dance of life:

Animals that full annual migrations or multiyear migrations need to possess a yearly clock, one that’s finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their modifications throughout every season. In all, evolution appears to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, maybe for those who migrate below cowl of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to seem to journey across the earth.

Besides their intricate inside timekeeping mechanisms, many nonhuman animals are endowed with equally intricate space-mapping mechanisms. Each migration season, humpback whales journey greater than ten thousand miles removed from land to return to the exact place the place they had been born. There are chicken species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings amongst them — that seem to orient by the pole star of their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees amongst them — that carry out triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized gentle to seek out essentially the most direct route house after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of 1 million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 imaginative and prescient that renders them blind by human requirements, honeybees make a whole lot of foraging journeys per day, meandering many miles from house, then compute the “beeline” again. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the celebs of the Milky Way as their compass, similar to among the most brave members of our personal species as soon as used the constellations to seek out their strategy to freedom from the ethical cowardice of tyranny: To guarantee they had been transferring northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad had been instructed to maintain the river on one facet and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African title for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.

Nineteenth-century Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, embroidered over the course of seven years as a instructing software in an period when increased schooling in science was solely obtainable to white males. (Available as a print and a face mask.)

Like all reality-radicalizing discoveries that defy the limiting creaturely intuitions we name widespread sense, the notion that animals may use magnetism for navigation was lengthy derided as one thing extra akin to spiritualism than to science. Humphry Davy — the best chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as in style leisure — was keenly within the thriller of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a stunning thoughts epochs ahead of his time in myriad methods, whose legacy shapes a lot of our day by day lives and whose title is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood an opportunity of cracking the thriller, given along with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, however the opprobrium of the scientific institution was too impenetrable and the know-how was not but there. It wasn’t till 1958 {that a} younger German graduate scholar — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation as soon as and for all. Instead, he ended up proving it: In the then-dubious experiment he was requested to copy, the birds he let unfastened in an area with no gentle supply may, similar to within the authentic experiment carried out by a fellow scholar, nonetheless orient effortlessly.

O’Connor writes:

The notion that animals have a bio-compass that may “read” the earth’s geomagnetic area has now emerged as essentially the most promising rationalization of animal navigation. In addition to these marathon migratory species, practically each animal that has been examined to this point demonstrates a capability to orient to the geomagnetic area. Carp floating in tubs at fish markets in Prague spontaneously align themselves in a north-south axis. So do newts at relaxation, and canines after they crouch to alleviate themselves. Horses, cattle, and deer orient their our bodies north-south whereas grazing, however not if they’re below energy traces, which disrupt the magnetic area. Red foxes virtually at all times pounce on mice from the northeast. These organisms should all have some sort of organelle that features as a magneto-receptor, the identical means an ear receives sound and an eye fixed receives area.

Magnetism with Key by Berenice Abbott, 1958, from her sequence Documenting Science.

We human animals navigate the world not solely by orienting in area, however by orienting in time. Mental time journey — the power to rememeber and mirror, to think about and plan for the longer term — is what made us human. It can be the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that hyperlinks our childhood selves to our current selves to make us, throughout a lifetime of bodily and psychological modifications, one person.

That string is called autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capability for psychological self-representation as entities in time that may mirror on our personal lives as steady and coherent phenomena of being. In the blink of evolutionary time since the dawn of neuroscience within the Nineteen Thirties, one space of the mind has emerged because the crucible of each our autoneoic consciousness and our spatial navigation: the hippocampus. O’Connor writes:

The hippocampus has typically been described because the human GPS, however this metaphor is reductive in comparison with what this outstanding, plastic a part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fastened positions or coordinates in area that by no means change, neuroscientists suppose what the hippocampus does is exclusive to us as people — it builds representations of locations based mostly on our viewpoint, experiences, recollections, targets, and wishes. It offers the infrastructure for our selfhood.

An astrocyte within the human hippocampus. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known ink drawings.

Because a self is a sample of experiences, recollections, and impressions, constellated in line with an organizing precept, and since sleep is when the hippocampus consolidates recollections to attract from them these organizing patterns, sleep is important to our sense of self. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:

During sleep you attempt to make sense of stuff you already discovered… You go into an enormous database of expertise and check out to determine new connections after which construct a mannequin to clarify new experiences. Wisdom is the foundations, based mostly on expertise, that enables us to make good choices in novel conditions sooner or later.

The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, however it isn’t singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are present in a few of our fellow animals throughout the rungs of neural complexity:

Even birds, which final shared an ancestor with people 250 million years in the past, in addition to amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is known as a medial pallium. Similar to the mammalian hippocampal formation in vertebrates, the medial pallium can be concerned in spatial duties in these species, elevating the likelihood that sure properties of spatial cognition had been conserved as organisms diversified and break up, whereas different properties tailored to specific ecologies or selective forces. But regardless of the profound evolutionary commonalities between people and different vertebrates and the best way the hippocampus pertains to cognitive features of reminiscence and navigation, the query stays: why did we make such a leap by way of hippocampi’s dimension and position in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto places it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”

Part of the reply may lie within the outstanding plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 examine of the brains of London taxi drivers — which discovered that their elaborate qualification examination, requiring the memorization of hundreds of metropolis landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in vital improve in synapses and grey matter within the hippocampus — scientists have been learning what we are able to do to guard and even bolster our main instrument for navigating area and selfhood.

O’Connor factors to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal well being routine of recollection and navigation workouts of incrementally growing issue that ship marked structural development of grey matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive health coaching program she has devised — teaches individuals to navigate the acquainted surroundings in intentionally novel methods, difficult trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to take care of new particulars and make new psychological maps within the course of.

Optimal hippocampal well being seems to be — just like the optimum expertise of life itself — a matter of paying lively and conscious consideration, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our mind has advanced to be, savoring the specifics of every unrepeatable second.

With an eye fixed to how our hippocampal acuity determines the standard of our lives, O’Connor wonders:

Maybe wayfinding is an exercise that confronts us with the marvelous reality of being on this planet, requiring us to lookup and take discover, to cognitively and emotionally work together with our environment whether or not we’re within the wilderness or a metropolis, even calling us to resume our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.

And but as a lot as we throb with wanderlust, we’re animated by an intense connection to the landscapes and topographies of our childhood. An emotion often called topophilia, which I skilled whereas revisiting these mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial reminiscence that renders childhood as a lot a time as a spot.

Major rivers and mountains of the world in contrast by size and peak, from Atlas de Choix, ou Recueil des Meilleures Cartes de Geographie Ancienne et Moderne Dressees par Divers Auteurs by J. Goujon and J. Andriveau, 1829. (Available as a print, as a face mask, and as stationery cards.)

O’Connor writes:

Often the locations we develop up in have outsized affect on us. They affect how we understand and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to stay by, and form the aim that drives us — they’re our supply of subjectivity in addition to a commonality by which we are able to relate to and determine with others. Maybe it’s due to the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that kids have a robust capability for the human emotion referred to as topophilia.

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Across cultures, navigation is influenced by specific environmental situations — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. But in all of them, it’s also a method by which people develop a way of attachment and feeling for locations. Navigating turns into a means of realizing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how one can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of beautiful recollections.

In the rest of the totally fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps essentially the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that folks from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene related to exploratory conduct than individuals from sedentary communities; historical feats of navigation handed down the generations in native cultures to problem the Western social idea of tradition; music as a metaphor for the connection between organisms and their surroundings. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.





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