Sunday, 22 March 2009

Getting lost - the how and why

I've just finished reading 'Deep Survival: Who lives, who dies and why" by Laurence Gonzales (available from for R167). The book has a good foundation, even though it drags. It was taking me ages to plough through - the examples are excellent but the bits in between and the waffling are loooonng (this book could be condensed to half the wordcount). Just before I gave up, I reached the chapter about people getting lost - how and why.

A couple of paragraphs really caught my attention. This one is from the previous chapter, but leads into the next.

The environment we're used to is designed to sustain us. We live like fish in an aquarium. Food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up. We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilisation. Then we go into nature, where we are the least among equals with all other creatures. There we are put to the test. Most of us sleep through the test. We get in and out and never know what might have been demanded. Such an experience can make us even more vulnerable, for we come away with the illusion of growing hard, salty and knowledgeable. Been there, done that.
Laurence is saying that until something goes wrong - like getting lost, falling off a mountain, getting caught in terrible weather - we just don't realise the dangers out there and we think we're adjusted to the outdoors.

Scientists used to believe that people had an inherent sense of direction. People like the aborigines and South Pacific islanders were often cited as examples because they seemed inexplicably good at navigating. Further research showed that these people didn't just inherently know how to get from A to B (often across vast distances with no significant visual cues), but that they had been trained from childhood to pick up subtle environmental cues (current patterns, subtle change in soil colour or texture), using them like landmarks. Even so, these people can and do get lost.

We create mental maps - a schematic of an area or route - positioning a mountain here, the river there and a clump of trees on the far side, based on what we observe from when we start out. These mental maps are images in our minds that place us within a physical environment. We do the same with our homes - that's why you can walk around in the dark at home; you know where everything is placed from your mental map. Blind people have excellent mental maps. But then something goes wrong; you stop paying attention perhaps and suddenly you look up and realise that your mental image (or the map in your hand) doesn't match the world you observe.
And to make matters worse, once you realise that you're not where you thought you were, you keep pressing forwards, driven by the goal (motivation) to get to a specific place - your destination - where you know safety, shelter, food and warmth await (emotion). Emotion with motivation is a lost person's undoing.

Psychologists who study the behaviour of people who get lost report that very few ever backtrack. (The eyes look forward into real or imagined worlds.)

In addition, stresses - cold, exhaustion, dehydration, hunger - turn "mild geographical confusion to a state of being genuinely lost".

Laurence quotes a friend who says, "Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like, 'Well, that lake could have dried up,' or 'That boulder could have moved,' a red light should go off". In this situation you're trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what's there. In orienteering this is called 'bending the map'. Big mistake.

Interestingly, lost children aged six and under have the highest rate of survival. Small children do not create the same kind of mental maps as adults. They don't understand traveling from one place to another, nor distance and time. They don't make assumptions about their environment and they don't have a mental map to bend. Instead they follow their instincts. If they're cold, they'll crawl into a protective hollow. If they're tired, they sleep. If they're thirsty, they'll find water. Adults, on the other hand, will keep going until they're exhausted, ignoring the need to eat and drink. Children between 7 and 12 have these same adult traits - plus panic.

The take home message - applicable to AR and orienteering - is that if you don't know where you are, backtrack. Going forward into the unknown really will not improve your situation. Return to your last point of certainty and try again.

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