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Remembrance of things passed

| Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Laura A. Carlson, professor of psychology at Notre Dame, studies cognition, especially the ways in which we map the world and our experiences onto and into our minds. Much of her research has practical applications, and this is exemplified by the work summarized in “Getting Lost in Buildings,” an article in the journal “Current Directions in Psychological Science.” The piece summarizes studies examining the various factors that contribute to getting lost in buildings, as well as suggestions for how to avoid becoming lost.

Some buildings have an inherent layout that makes them prime sites for getting lost. If a structure is dramatically unique architecturally, it may not present a readily discernible structure that is easy to remember. Perhaps the building has a funky layout, such as a five-pointed star, so that tactics such as assigning each hallway a compass direction do not work, or even floor plans that change from floor to floor.

In each case, to maneuver around a building that is unfamiliar, we typically form a “cognitive map” that corresponds to the actual building. The “you are here” map found in shopping malls is an attempt to provide a memorable guide of the overall structure of the complex. Unfortunately the maze of mezzanines, ice-rinks and food courts, perhaps laid out in multiple tiers of intersecting ovals, often does not lend itself to easy memorization.

Perhaps most important is the strategy you use to navigate an unfamiliar place. If you are confident in the cognitive map of the building you have in place, then you might depend on a reasoning-based strategy that refers to the overall image of the building held in your head. As you make your way through the building, you can infer your location relative to your destination based on the map in your mind. The chance of losing your way increases if the cognitive map is difficult to construct, or faulty. In addition, cognitive abilities vary greatly between people and you may have a low limit of right and left turns you can commit to memory.

In lieu of memorizing an overall vision of the building to be traversed, a more direct approach is a route-based strategy, where you try to remember signposts along the specific path you followed. A pioneer in this approach is the well-known Latina cartoon character, Dora the Explorer. If you are a fan of Dora’s shows, you’ll recall her typical pursuits involve journeys with her companions: a talkative purple backpack and a well evolved monkey sidekick, Boots. As Dora sets out on her journey, she break the fourth wall to point out memorable objects encountered along the way (“here’s a rock that looks like a lion … there’s a palm tree with five coconuts…”), and uses these items to form a mental chain of things that were passed that can be recalled in reverse order to trace a path home.

So, what about those tips to avoid getting lost? First, I suggest avoiding complex buildings; simple buildings are easier to navigate. Buildings that consist essentially of one big room with an easy to locate focal point — something like the Lincoln Memorial — are a cinch. Next, try to simplify the map in your head so that it is easier to recall. Instead of memorizing the whole mind-numbing layout of a hospital, just identify the path you need to travel (“elevator to the second floor, head towards reception desk, turn right and head down corridor to waiting room”).

Finally, follow the example of Dora, and note unique memorable items along your path. Savvy architects and designers use art and novel construction details to give otherwise bland interior environments some variety, and a source of landmarks for visitors unfamiliar with the buildings. A shopping mall in Dallas features striking art displayed throughout its sprawling corridors. One boutique may look much like another, but asking someone to meet you in front the sculpture by Henry Moore (which I refer to as the “reclining donut”) is a much easier task to navigate.

Carlson expands on Dora’s approach to help navigate different environments, such as a city you are visiting for the first time. Carlson suggests this simple trick as you walk around an unfamiliar area: at each intersection, spin around to see what the scene will look like from the return perspective. In this way you will be able to recognize it from the other direction and you can also store that view in your cognitive map.

Carlson’s research, and her tips for not getting lost, can be instructive in a larger sense. Life is the ultimate unfamiliar structure, and as we travel through it we would do well to take time, especially at important intersections, to stop and look back at where we came from. Our journey may start diverging further and further from the cognitive map of the plans and dreams we carry in our heads, but if we take time occasionally to appreciate where we came from, then we can get back to what is most important to us. Just getting through the complicated and unknowable challenges of life is a goal in itself, and we should console ourselves with Dora’s “We Did It!” song as we face each day.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at patrayram@sbcglobal.net

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