Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Just Following Directions

Technology today allows us to outsource, perhaps to "upsource," a number of tasks to the cloud — tasks that used to require some degree of focused effort, record-keeping, or mindfulness from us. Facebook will remember and remind you about your friends’ birthdays; software online or on your computer or smartphone will keep track of the physical and electronic addresses and contact details of everyone you know; calendar applications will notify you, with as much or as little notice as you like, about scheduled events that are about to happen. Anyone who uses a GPS navigational device, whether on a smartphone or in a vehicle, can testify to its revolutionary effect on wayfinding: the means by which we orient ourselves and navigate from place to place.

A byproduct of wayfinding is what psychologists call a cognitive map, or more informally a mental map: a generalized picture of a portion of the exterior physical world that each of us holds to store information about landmarks and areas, and the distances, routes, and scales that connect them.

GPS devices have supplanted a huge number of conversations that used to take place in the aid of wayfinding: conversations that may have begun with a question like "How do I get back to the Interstate?" or "Is there a supermarket I can stop at near your house?" Many would agree that these conversations were not typically satisfactory and that the availability of GPS directions is a positive development for disambiguating navigational algorithms.

Languages vary widely in the ways they encode spatial relationships but a pattern common to all languages is that many "spatial grams" — that is, lexical and grammatical items that people use to talk about where something is or how you get to it — tend to evolve, over millennia, from names for parts of the body. This is why we have in English an adverb and preposition like ahead, and a preposition beside (the oldest meaning of side being the parts of the body that are on the left and the right).

This universal tendency in language reflects the fact that our experience of space is integrated with our cognition of how our bodies fit into it. And the way I conceive and mark that relationship may be different than the way that you do. When I give you directions, I’m giving you a narrative analog of the experience I have had on a journey that you are going to take. You, no doubt, will experience that journey differently in some particulars. This may be why some people’s eyes glaze over when you mention one of the points of the compass, while others can’t even get started on directions till you tell them which way North is. It may also explain why there is often a feature of spoken directions that seems mystifying in retrospect: a landmark or instruction that was presented as pivotal by the giver of directions may have been scarcely noticed by the executor, who wonders why some other critical feature was not mentioned.

GPS devices and applications remedy two liabilities of spoken or written directions. First, they replace the stored, idiosyncratic narrative aspect of a set of directions with a simpler set of standard instructions that you can execute in real time. Doubts about what you heard, or what it meant, are largely banished. GPS devices also supply an iconic display of the route as it unfolds, giving a picture that may well be worth a thousand words of verbal directions at nearly every turn.

What I notice, now that I have caved in to the utter convenience and ease of using GPS, is that my cognitive mapmaking is not what it used to be. In fact, it is so bad that sometimes I simply forgo the effort of consulting my cognitive maps, knowing that they aren’t going to supply the needed information. I just use my GPS device or the navigation app on my phone to go nearly everywhere. This has led me to think about what made old-style cognitive mapmaking more successful and why these maps fail to develop readily when I rely on GPS.

Without the use of GPS, wayfinding has at its disposal an eclectic set of tools that can be selected from depending on the circumstances: written or spoken directions, a printed map, an online service such as Mapquest or Google Maps that gives a graphic display of an entire route, or when all of these fail, stopping to ask directions when you are lost. What’s common to all of these methods is that they require the receiver of directions to store — or attempt to store — a narrative in memory, and that narrative is bound to contain spatial grams. In the case of written or spoken directions the spatial grams are explicit. In map study, the spatial grams are implicit, but it seems likely that the studier of a map records an internal narrative while looking at the route laid out two-dimensionally, and this narrative will also contain spatial grams. These spatial grams are the conceptual link between our bodies and the space that surrounds us. The more we use them, the more we reinforce the connection of our bodies to a physical space or route.

GPS devices use spatial grams as well; my GPS (or "Sister," as I call her) can say "right turn ahead," "turn around as soon as possible," "stay in the left lane," and many other formulas. But I am not required to store these: as noted above, they are delivered and can be executed in real time, and then discarded.

I’ve given away the fact that I have a relationship with my GPS, and in that respect I am like about a third of GPS users, who talk to their devices. I find it therapeutic to dispute Sister’s directions when I think she is wrong, and compliment her when she saves me a lot of trouble, but beyond that, talking to the GPS seems to supply a need that was a part of old-fashioned wayfinding: a dialog. Dialogs about directions are always an opportunity in which the users of directions employ spatial grams, and that activity further reinforces the physical connection of the person to the route.

So I wonder: are we sacrificing, or allowing to atrophy, a critical component of executive function — the making of cognitive maps — by sending wayfinding to the cloud? Probably not: everyday life still provides many opportunities to rely on old-fashioned wayfinding and its attendant dialogs, such as consulting a map at a shopping mall or a tourist attraction, or even asking the way to the men’s room in a restaurant. But it makes me a little nervous to hand over a skill that I used to perform pretty well to a set of anonymous satellites and the equally anonymous software that connects me to them.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Thursday November 1st 2012, 4:32 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
In recent years a Canadian couple by the name of Chretien were lost in, I believe, Nevada while following GPS directions for a short cut through a less travelled route. The husband disappeared after heading off in search of assistance and the wife only barely survived before being found. In recent weeks hope of the husband turning up alive were dashed when his body was discovered. So, these systems are useful, but have a ways to go yet before I'll surrender to them.
Thursday November 1st 2012, 6:46 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
What you say reminds me that all new technology causes us to gain a facility while losing a skill. Sailors used to rig jury masts in storms; modern ships wallow if they lose power. My wife Caroline used to work as a barmaid years ago in London, and cheerfully added pounds, shillings and pence for differently priced drinks as she fulfilled a large order. Modern barmaids click tabs on a reader.

I think we have now reached the point where new technology needs to be designed to allow us to retain mental and physical skills as we move forward, just as new design needs to include the death as well as the birth of the things we fill our lives with. Good design must include recycling; good technology must include skill retention (of some kind). It's beginning to happen, but not quickly enough.

Thank you for your thoughts, intelligent as always.
Thursday November 1st 2012, 11:14 AM
Comment by: David D. (Seattle, WA)
The comment by Nick Shephard reminded me that Carrie Fisher once said that instant gratification was not quick enough.
My lady friend suggests that we go UP to the Mexican restaurant, which I know is clearly DOWN hill from here. Not only does north mean nothing to her, up and down mean nothing as well. Then she got a "smart phone" with GPS and can follow that device anywhere. Perhaps not in the isolated area (in Oregon actually) where that family was lost mainly because there were no antenna nearby.
I seem to have been born with a compass and a simple GPS built into my brain, but I fear I may lose my skill if I depend on the facility of GPS.
Thursday November 1st 2012, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Dina K. H. (San Joe, CA)
Smart thinking - and informative, as always.
Here's another reason for human beings to avoid communication. (Which I think is a sad part of technology).
On the other hand, I do like for others to know that North is UP. :-D
Thursday November 1st 2012, 3:11 PM
Comment by: mac
this article calls up a memory of the USN Academy, It had been traditional to teach a course on celestial navigation. midshipmen were assigned small sailing vessels and told to go to it.
it seems somewhere along the line the modern navy decided there were enough bells and whistles to sailoring that celestial was no longer needed. i suppose they never considered there might be a ship going to davy jones' locker. i'm not sure what finally made them change their collective mind but the brand of officer they were graduating didn't seem as rounded as a salt ought be. and so, to my knowledge, they do celestial now once again at the Academy.
the above may be riddled with inaccuracies but the kernel is there even though it's highly unlikely there's a kernel in the naval service.
Thursday November 1st 2012, 3:16 PM
Comment by: mac
this article calls up a memory of the USN Academy, It had been traditional to teach a course on celestial navigation. midshipmen were assigned small sailing vessels and told to go to it.
it seems somewhere along the line the modern navy decided there were enough bells and whistles to sailoring that celestial was no longer needed. i suppose they never considered there might be a ship going to davy jones' locker. i'm not sure what finally made them change their collective mind but the brand of officer they were graduating didn't seem as rounded as a salt ought be. and so, to my knowledge, they do celestial once again at the Academy.

the above may be riddled with inaccuracies but the kernel is there even though it's highly unlikely there's a kernel in the naval service.
Friday November 2nd 2012, 7:24 AM
Comment by: Maurice D. (Phnom Penh Cambodia)
You mention that all languages build directions with reference to our bodies. Certainly most do, but as always there are exceptions. If I remember correctly there are languages in which all directions are with reference to the equivalent of North-South with no words that reference direction in relationship to the body. Odd but true. I encountered this in another source but Deutscher gives a good description in Through the Language Looking Glass.
Friday November 2nd 2012, 3:19 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nick: I like your observation about technology that causes us to gain a facility while losing a skill. I think it’s a pattern that can be observed throughout history but seems to be accelerated today, as we become able to transfer so many skills that we think of as requiring intelligence to machines.

Maurice: I do not find the discussion in Through the Language Looking Glass that you mention. My source for the observation that all languages develop spatial grams from the names of body parts is the book The Grammar of Space, by Soteria Svorou. The concept is discussed and exemplified throughout the book.

Thanks to all for your comments.
Friday November 2nd 2012, 5:42 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
The human brain may eventually be enhanced internally, or more likely by direct connection with external devices. In the meantime, our brains are constantly enhanced by software and services like GPS. So we don't need mental arithmetic, mnemonics or maps as much. If, in future, I need to learn how to milk a cow by hand, or shoe a horse, I will. As miraculous as our brains are, there are many things that they don't do well. So we rejoice in our new capabilities.

Enough lamentation. Think about what else you can do.
Saturday November 3rd 2012, 8:55 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I have just completed a study on Lakoff's theory of conceptual metaphor - and this article has given me plenty to think about in terms of the way our brains use internal 'built in' mapping, and how much of that has been enhanced by external influence and socio-cultural experiences that become embedded. Fascinating!
Saturday November 3rd 2012, 6:05 PM
Comment by: Deborah Gavrin F.
My experience is that cognitive maps are also somatic maps, held in the whole body, not just in the brain. They are physical as well as mental maps.

I continue to eschew GPS devices, partly for fun and adventure, but mostly because I really do want to know where I am. If I just follow directions, whether from Mapquest, a human informant, or some other source, I may get where I want to be, but I won't know where that is in relation to other places I may have been or may want to go. If I find a location on a paper map, and especially if I trace my route on the map with my fingers before I set out on my way, I not only get where I want to go, I also add information to my personal mental/physical map of the world. I devoutly hope that if, as is possible, I outlive the practice of publishing updated paper maps, I'll be able to find some way to continue to update my personal cognitive/somatic maps.
Saturday November 3rd 2012, 8:52 PM
Comment by: mac
when i lived on long island i would take the family for a ride. if the destination was new to me i would get an approximation and off we'd go. i would abandon the "big roads" as soon as was prudent in favor of some little bypath, the deeper into a wood, the better. the kids loved it but the wife usually showed irritation. something to the tune of "you;lll get us lost".
an impossible thing, i told her. this is long island. i would use the sun and the time-of-day as my compass and manage to keep something of a reckoning and if we overshot our mark we'd eventually come to water and know we went too far. after all, it is an island.
in the case of bad reckoning we could retrace our steps and reorient.
this line of thought eluded the misses who found it vexatious but to me and the kids it was the great adventure. after all, what's a sunday for?
Monday November 5th 2012, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Chandru S. (Chaska, MN)
when you are travelling in india you have still vastly different experiences. firstly, the gps is not that well developed and google maps are not so accurate as the mapping still requires more details. so people use gps + local enquiries as supplementary inputs. the receiver may get info as to where or how he is to reach a certain place in various languages or different interpretations depending on which part of india he is in. he may be told that a turn would come after a walk of 10 mins or after 2 furlongs or .5 km etc etc. as cognitive recognition goes only part gets digested and the remaining is left purely to luck.
Wednesday November 7th 2012, 1:37 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
I have a good mental mapping ability which amazes my husband, but it has an odd local quirk: in Minneapolis, there is "Downtown" (where I live), and "Uptown" (a popular commerical/restaurant area), which is a couple of miles south of Downtown. Why Up is south of Down, I don't know. But curiously, my mental map when navigating between the two always has South at the top. Printed maps that show Uptown below Downtown look positively wrong to me and I have to do a mental 180 to get my mind to process it right. I wonder if this is related to the names themselves, Uptown and Downtown. The power of the word "up" is strong indeed -- stronger for me apparently, than the words "North" or "South."
Wednesday November 7th 2012, 4:15 PM
Comment by: mac
in manhattan, non-drivers know east from west due to our system of identifying streets. 5th avenue runs on an approximate north/south axis and divides the island giving us cross streets named "east" and "west" as in, east 42nd and west 42nd.
within this nomenclature we seemed to have lost north and south from our vocab; it's uptown and down. when i tell someone where i'm off to it may sound something like, "i'm going uptown on the east side" or, more likely, "i'm going to the upper east side.
so much for all those geography lessons in sister timothy's class.
o yes, if you're here and grabbing a cab, give the street first and then the avenue as, 19th and 10th. you'll sound like a native, for all the good it will do you. this latest generation of hacks have trouble with the most basic instructions with the exception of reading the meter. one more thing: it's 6th avenue; not the avenue of the americas, no matter what the signage tells you.
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
It often happens that cashiers are unable to make correct change when their automatic cssh registers quit. But this summer, I had a remarkable experience in a small town in Minnesota.

The Visa machine was connected to the phone line which was down. Fortunately, the cash register was 'old-fashioned', and still worked. (I'm not sure if those are phone conncted or electric powered), and the older woman was able to make change from the American bills I luckily had!

Computing change ability needed, and a back-up manual cash register might be necessities, even with all our technology!

Thanks for the thought provoking words.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.