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How animals navigate
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John Jensen
(JohnJ) - F

Locale: Orange County, CA
How animals navigate on 07/13/2011 05:45:34 MDT Print View

I thought this new Scientific American article was neat:

Death of the cognitive map

I guess I can use it to second-guess my "viewpoint-dependent snapshots of scenes within the environment."

Steofan The Apostate
(simaulius) - F

Locale: Bohemian Alps
How animals navigate on 07/13/2011 07:54:23 MDT Print View

Nice article! Wonder why no one drops people into tanks of water as test subjects? I was reading somewhere that an eagle can see a pine needle fall to the forest floor, a deer can hear it land and a bear can smell it all take place. That leaves us graced only with our "human intutions". No wonder that many of our species mark trails with empty beer cans!

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: How animals navigate on 07/13/2011 09:15:57 MDT Print View

Purely on their endstinks.

Piper S.
(sbhikes) - F

Locale: Santa Barbara (Name: Diane)
Re: How animals navigate on 07/13/2011 11:10:40 MDT Print View

The article says that most people when asked say they nagivate with some sort of mental "birds-eye-view" map in their minds. Is that really true though? I certainly don't navigate that way, not even on a trail. I do more of the snap-shot thing.

Sometimes when someone asks me for directions I'll mentally go over the route in my head, not as a map but as a series of landmarks. Then I'll translate that into a map if I have to. On the trail, I will often remember the way based on things I've seen, a crooked tree, an interesting boulder, a view. I've always done it that way. As far as how to tell how far from home or how to get back? How far: how long have you been out? How to get back? Turn around and pass all the same landmarks.

tommy d
(vinovampire) - F
Re: Re: How animals navigate on 07/14/2011 21:30:01 MDT Print View

Piper - I think the entire point of the piece was to refute the idea of this "cognitive map." As written at the end of the article, "This is not to say, of course, that humans can’t use maps. The critical difference is that our internal representations of the environment are not map-like."

If you reread the article, I believe it states that your description of IDing landmarks is exactly what we do in our minds. Again, it states that "Human adults, it appeared, use a view-dependent scene recognition system as well! They take visual snapshots, rather than forming a cognitive map."

In any event, this is an interesting piece.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: Re: How animals navigate on 07/15/2011 23:53:18 MDT Print View

"The article says that most people when asked say they nagivate with some sort of mental "birds-eye-view" map in their minds. Is that really true though? I certainly don't navigate that way, not even on a trail. I do more of the snap-shot thing. "

They were probably expressing wishful thinking, or just not understanding what they were doing in the first place.

Read up on "dreaming tracks" or "songlines" sometime -- or just read "Deep Survival" (which is worth reading anyway). It's an old aboriginal navigation technique, where people would describe a route as a song, and people who learned the song could navigate their way across vast swathes of open desert, unerringly finding not only their way across, but also the places where they could get water.

I go by landmarks myself. I try to practice the Songlines technique, though I tend to forget sometimes. Being a photographer helps with that, because I tend to pay attention to, take note of, and frequently photograph things that most people don't even pay attention to. Just the act of taking pictures is frequently enough for me to remember a landmark.

Laurence Gonzales (author of Deep Survival) described a course in which the instructor taught the songlines method; he stopped and talked about various things along the way, and built up his mental map of landmarks that way.

It sounds like you're doing the same thing, or at least similar. :)

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
confused a bit on 07/16/2011 09:43:10 MDT Print View

I'm a little unclear on how the cognitive map idea differs from the series of snapshots. Isn't the map just imagining those snapshots in relative position to each other? Or was the cognitive map defined as something entirely different?

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: confused a bit on 07/16/2011 11:34:27 MDT Print View

The cognitive map is the top-down view, as if one is looking at an actual map in one's head.

The series of snapshots is exactly what it sounds like, a series of picture that delineate the route you followed... hence the advice to look behind you periodically and at significant intersections, so that you have some snapshots to help you find your way back :)

spelt with a t
(spelt) - F

Locale: SW/C PA
I see on 07/16/2011 11:51:49 MDT Print View

In my head, at least, the arrangement of snapshots are in three dimensions, but that doesn't fit the definition they're using. Thanks for clarifying.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: I see on 07/16/2011 23:43:22 MDT Print View

No problem.

I think it does fit their definition, but you're probably just better at relating your snapshots to a map than most people.

Most folks *think* that they're building a map, but in reality they don't have the faintest idea as to where they really are unless they're following a route they know. Even then, they frequently have a lot of trouble relating one place to another, even when it's two places that they travel between frequently.

Miles Barger
(milesbarger) - F - M

Locale: West Virginia
Maps on 07/17/2011 15:41:47 MDT Print View

For humans, I think there's more to it than this article suggests. While it may very well be true that our most basic form of navigation is to remember exact visual snapshots, it seems clear that we are also able to augment this ability with other mental tools (e.g., Songlines).

I read the beginning of this thread before going on a 32-mile overnighter to a completely new area this weekend, so I consciously examined how I was making route finding decisions and generally finding my way around. I found that reading and constructing my own "cognitive map" of the area was a process of (1) translation of the printed map into actual views and (2) translating and relating my actual views back into three-dimensional space.

(1) I see an area on the map where the trail starts on the left of a small southern hump on the ridgeline, passes between it and a slightly more northern small hump, and proceeds along the right side of the northern hump. The generalized landcover shown on the map (a USGS quad) indicates that there aren't any trees in this area. Looking to the east, I should be able to see the drainage of a large, prominent creek. There are large waterfalls along it, so, if it's quiet, I should be able to hear the sound of falling water. Thinking about the area in context and relating it to my previous experience, I can guess it will be exposed and rocky and feature a certain collection of sub-alpine meadow wildflowers. Taking it further, I might even expect to find and hear certain kinds of birds and insects there. So, I put this all together in my mind and translate it into the sensory experience of standing in and traveling through that place: what I will see, hear, feel, touch (and in some cases taste if I'm specifically looking for food or water).

(2) Standing at a viewpoint, I look to my left and right and see two creek drainages. I look at the overall changes in forest canopy relative to elevation, using what I know about undergrowth and wildlife in respect to elevation to fill in the gaps of what I can't see underneath. I estimate the slope. I look for outcroppings along the creeks, listen for falling water, determine which direction the water will be flowing etc. I take all these things in, consciously orient everything in three-dimensional space, and add it to an overall mental map of the area that I can then later use the techniques of (1) to translate back into located experiences.

I would consider these two inter-related processes to be learned skills that I can consciously apply "on top of" my underlying, built-in visual snapshot navigation method and can further improve with practice.

For an example of a different kind of learned mental skill that can be used to augment our built-in abilities, check out this article: "Secrets of a Mind-Gamer" by Joshua Foer.

Dustin Short
(upalachango) - MLife
Re: Maps on 07/24/2011 10:28:31 MDT Print View

In your example Miles, you're kind of cheating by having a topo available. The article, and science, is looking more directly at how we navigate with out orienteering aids like compass and map.

Also notice how the experiments were based off a single learned route, and getting lost when introduced from a new point of view.

Humans (and I bet most other animals) can combine multiple learned paths into a three dimensional cognitive map of an area.

Humans can take it a step farther than many animals. With our use of symbols and deductive reasoning (the latter of which we're learning many animals also possess) we can combine literal maps and use logic to "fill in" the gaps. This is why people living in Western US suburban sprawl are usually really good at finding a neighborhood (deductive reasoning on how neighborhoods are setup) but not so great at finding an exact address without a map (neighborhood subdivisions often have winding non-grid streets).

Also a lot of people don't travel outside their familiar settings so they do use a cognitive map that's been built up by years of experience and a multitude of snapshot paths. People that travel to new locations frequently are probably more aware of the underlying "snapshot" method since it is the basic building block for human navigation.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: Re: Maps on 07/24/2011 15:24:01 MDT Print View

"Humans (and I bet most other animals) can combine multiple learned paths into a three dimensional cognitive map of an area."

Not inherently, I think. I believe it's a learned skill. BPL is a very skewed slice of the populace, since most people who are into back-country trekking have a keen interest in not getting lost, and therefore learn how to navigate. Building a cognitive 3D map of a region is one of the skills that most of us have probably developed as a result.