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Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human

Apr 29, 2016

Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human
by George Michelsen Foy
Flatiron Books, 2016
285 pages


Books with navigation as their central element tend to be either instructional or inspirational — “how to do it” or “how I did it.” George Michelsen Foy’s new book Finding North has both these elements, but it also puts forth a more profound look at navigation: that the act of navigating, of actively determining your position from the various clues you can ferret out from your environment, has shaped human thinking down through history, has “made us human” in a real sense. Further, Foy argues that by overreliance on GPS we are casting away millennia of development and, in effect, rewiring our brains.

It’s a disturbing idea that casts the wonder and ease of GPS navigation in a different light. Rather than merely a bow to time-honored tradition, navigating in a non-GPS fashion — using dead reckoning, compass courses, bearings, radar ranges, celestial navigation, etc. — can actually have positive effects on one’s cognitive makeup. Foy backs up this proposition by citing research conducted by scientists, even visiting a few of these scientists, showing that traditional navigation techniques have actually enlarged the hippocampus of the brains of, for example, London cabbies who need to learn the vast complexity of the city’s streets. 

Foy also tells the story of his Norwegian great-great-grandfather Halvor Michelsen, who was the captain of a 19th-century Norway-to-Germany packet ship that foundered. The author decides he will conduct a re-enactment of sorts of his ancestor’s voyages (sans shipwreck!) to gain insight into traditional navigation techniques. Foy does this aboard his Morgan 35 sailboat, Odyssey, deciding to sail from Cape Cod to Matinicus Rock off the Maine coast. The story of this voyage is interwoven with intriguing asides on navigation and its history, current research into brain function, colorful family tales, along with trips Foy made to London, Greece, Haiti and what he calls “the dark heart of GPS,” Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado where that premier electronic navigation system is controlled.

Finding North is both a fascinating and sobering look at how partaking of the fruit of easy GPS navigation may be changing ourselves in ways we don’t fully realize. 

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