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Moving Through Space When You’re Stuck at Home

June 05
16:59 2020

By Michael Bond

For almost all our evolutionary history, humans have dedicated a great deal of our cognitive resources to learning about the space around us and how we fit into it. Where am I? Where do I belong? Where am I going? How do I get there? These are the raw questions of existence and survival.

To answer them, our prehistoric ancestors developed powerful systems of spatial memory that enabled them to make journeys of hundreds of miles across unfamiliar landscapes, to trade and share food and stay in touch with their neighbors. We’ve been using those faculties ever since. Our navigation abilities and spatial awareness are, quite literally, part of our DNA, fundamental to what makes us human.

Today, with much of the world on lock-down, we find ourselves in an unfamiliar relationship with our surroundings. For a species primed for movement, the lack of it feels disorienting. This may be because at a neural level, many of our cognitive functions depend on our brain’s spatial system. The spatial cells in the hippocampus, which allow us to delineate distance and direction and the shapes and dimensions of places, are equally important in helping us recall the past and imagine the future.

If the same brain networks that support physical navigation also support mental navigation, it isn’t hard to conceive how living in a restricted environment might affect our minds. In the most extreme cases, confinement—particularly when it’s solitary—can lead to mental breakdown. Kidnapping victims and supermax prisoners who are held in small spaces for long periods often suffer great anguish. Obsessional thinking, paranoia and panic attacks are the norm, and full-blown psychosis is not uncommon.

But if the elimination of space can crush us, the judicious and creative use of it can bring salvation. When we’re unable to move around, we can become wayfinders of the mind. This is how some people in solitary confinement have succeeded in keeping themselves more or less sane, by embarking on flights of imagination that allowed them to transcend their immediate reality. Hussain al-Shahristani was Saddam Hussein’s chief nuclear adviser before being jailed for refusing to work on a nuclear weapon. He survived 10 years of solitary confinement by taking refuge in a world of abstractions, making up mathematical problems and trying to solve them. Michael Jewell, who served 40 years in a Texas jail for murder, coped with seven years of isolation by inventing fantasy scenarios in which he roamed open spaces and interacted with strangers. “When I opened my eyes…I would feel refreshed and even invigorated,” he told the magazine Nautilus.

Over the winter of 1930-31 one of my distant cousins, an explorer named August Courtauld, spent five months snowed in by himself in a tiny makeshift weather station on the Greenland icecap, with no means of communicating with the world beyond. His friends had planned to relieve him after six weeks, but the terrible weather kept them from reaching him and he ended up entombed by the snow in perpetual darkness. When he was eventually rescued, he appeared emaciated but psychologically fit. He put his sanity down to the solidarity he felt with his friends, his constant thoughts of them and the absolute certainty that they would return for him. He confessed to finding the silence “terrible,” but he managed to tap into the power of community by reaching out in his mind to the people who cared about him.

Quarantine has made us conscious of space and time in ways we weren’t before—what six feet of distance actually looks like, how long a day feels.

None of us today is quite as isolated as Courtauld was, but our forced quarantine has caused many people great anxiety. It has also made us conscious of space and time in ways we weren’t before—what six feet of distance actually looks like, how long a day feels. More than anything else, we are aware of social space, the map of our friendships and social circles. Zoom, FaceTime and the like allow us to reassemble these networks inside our homes. We can stay socially close while physically remote, though as Courtauld showed, you don’t need digital technology to achieve this.

Mental wayfinding—navigating through a remembered landscape or a social network—can be a surprisingly effective surrogate for the real thing. This could be because the brain treats mental and physical navigation in much the same way. Recently, a team of neuroscientists led by Daniela Schiller at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York found that the hippocampus tracks the dimensions of sociality, such as degrees of power and trust, as if it were tracking dimensions of physical space. To the brain, social space is physical space, configured by the same networks of cells. It’s no accident that we use spatial metaphors when we’re describing social connections: a close friend, a distant cousin, a circle of acquaintances. It’s our hippocampus talking.

We are spatial creatures, evolved for action. Even a little movement can help us feel more human.

Mental wayfinding can make confinement feel more manageable, but there comes a point when the need to interact with the real world becomes overwhelming. We are spatial creatures, evolved for action. Even a little movement can help us feel more human. Alzheimer’s patients, despite being disoriented much of the time, often feel compelled to wander. Doctors, caregivers and relatives tend to see this habit as part of the pathology of the disease and try to prevent it, but it may instead be a therapeutic, life-affirming response to illness. When you don’t completely understand your world, it makes sense to search it out.

It’s also possible that they are walking to stay alive. Sitting in a chair in a room they don’t recognize, with a past they can’t access, it can be a struggle for Alzheimer’s patients to know who they are. But when they move they are once again wayfinders, engaging in one of the oldest human endeavors, and anything is possible.

Now that many people have become familiar with confinement for the first time, it’s worth reflecting on this enduring human impulse to explore. We do it instinctively at the beginning of our lives: Children are natural explorers, more interested in the journey than the destination. We do it at the end when we can do little else. It’s a survival strategy: Moving gives us options. This is true whether we venture through physical space or through the landscape of the mind. Thanks to our spatial brains, we can be explorers without ever leaving the house.


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Tarannum Naaz

Tarannum Naaz

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