Our brain sucks at navigating the natural world

When newly graduated I was assigned a trained architect as a mentor. When I told him I studied wayfinding, he happily showed me a new project of his, which, he said, included wayfinding in its core layout. The project was a nursing home for elderly people, including dementia patients. He proudly explained to me how it was impossible for them to get lost, seeing that there was only one corridor shaped as an infinite loop.

I can see how this works in theory. If you can’t find your door, you just keep on walking until it appears. In reality though, I deem it extremely confusing and, I would say, even cruel.

For this to work you would have to have windows in the corridor and distinctive landmarks outside, providing a sense of direction. And inside you would also have to differentiate the area surrounding each door. And to mention that dementia patient don’t deal with logic – they deal with the familiar and there is nothing familiar about a roundabout in your home.

So what is exactly the best layout for our human monkey brains?

Well in the PHD ‘Accessibility in Public Spaces – Wayfinding in Hospitals’, Solvej Colfelt Silberlein, architect MAA phd, gives us a clue. She investigates which ground plan typology makes for the best wayfinding. In her research she comes across studies that hints to the notion that the human navigation system performs the best in passages that meet in 90 degree angles.

She writes:

“Werner and Schindler found in a virtual-reality experiment, that structures where passage ways met in other than straight angles, e.g. curvy passages or 45 degree angles, gives significantly worse wayfinding and takes 25% longer time to reach a destination.

This is confirmed by a few studies in natural environments. Moving in straight angles makes the user retain their sense of direction. ref. Werner, S; Schindler, L 2004, The role of spatial reference frames in architecture, environment & behavior, vol. 36, nr. 4 sage publications.

She also discovers that fewer decision points prevents people from getting lost. And when I think about it, it really resonances with my own experiences and I buy it a 100%.

My problem is, that it is a shit strategy! There are no straight lines in the natural environment and a million decision points – how come evolution trained us to become experts at navigating like Pacman?

I don’t have the answer to this yet. Not even an idea or theory. But I do have another angle to this.

Mapmaker Aris Venetikidis did a TED talk a few years back about this phenomenon. He talks about how, when you draw a route map, it is essentially a mental map. Handdrawn route maps are, if you think about it, often made up of straight lines and 90 degree angles with small landmarks along the line. This confirms, to me at least, that this 'straight' is our brains preference when we move about.

Aris Venetikidis then shows something, that was a big AHA moment for me. He compares our crude mindmaps to metro maps and they are extremely alike.

It dawned on me, that when you’re commuting by train or bus, especially when underground, the mental map is completely aligned with the highly schematic maps and off course that is why they work so brillantly.

Because you don’t have to know an exact route, just route stops and points, you don’t need to know the actual layout of a landscape. You can remove all those distracting curves and weird angles that apparently bothers our brain to pieces, and make an extremely effective map.

If you have any thoughts about why our brains like the straight, don't hesitate to share with me.

If you want to know more, I can highly recommend you checking out his TED talk below.