way to go

I come in from my run, grinning with the pleasure of it.

‘Where did you go?’ asks my husband. We’re on holiday, and just getting to know the surrounding forest, moorland and hills.

‘Down the zigzag track, then up the path that turns back on itself and through that dingly dell.’

He looks blankly at me.

‘Down the zigzags…’ I begin again.

‘Yes I know the zigzags,’ he says impatiently.

‘Then up the path that takes a hairpin bend off the road…’

‘Yes,’ his eyes float upwards as if he’s following my route in his head, which of course he is.

‘Then through that bit with all the overhanging branches covered in moss and lichen, like something out of Lord of the Rings.’

This evidently doesn’t resonate with his own mental map, so he asks: ‘Which path did you take out of the clearing?’

‘What clearing?’

‘At the top of the’ – he cringes slightly – ‘“path that turns back on itself” there’s a clearing, isn’t there. [I’m not giving this a question mark, because it was a statement, not a question.] ‘With three different paths off it. Which one did you take?’

‘I don’t know,’ I shrug as if it doesn’t matter, although I feel as if I’ve failed some kind of test. ‘It felt like straight on to me.’

By now, both our moods have soured. But it’s not our fault that we can’t share this visual joyride. We simply see the world differently – and the map each of us has created in our mind’s eye is unique, despite representing the same place.

Kevin Lynch – a pioneer of applying mental mapping to urban planning – once wrote: ‘Our perception of a city is not sustained, but rather partial, fragmentary, mixed with other concerns. Nearly every sense is in operation, and the image is the composite of them all.’

My take on Lynch’s observation is that our mental maps aren’t crisp and clinical like paper ones. They are shaped by the emotions and experiences we accrue as we blaze our trails. Here’s where I felt scared by the remoteness of the trail; there’s the tree under which I saw a dead owl; this is the route I did the last weekend I saw my nan before she died. We don’t just run a route, we engage with it.

What intrigues me is what each of us senses in a landscape – what landmarks we choose to plot our journey. Research has shown that navigation develops new grey matter in the part of the brain responsible for complex spatial representation. In a 2006 study, London taxi drivers – tasked with holding an entire ‘A to Z’ of maps in their heads – were found to have more grey matter in this region, which tended to recede after they retired.

Jeff orienteered at a national level as a junior, before taking degrees in geography and town planning. It’s no wonder he sees landscapes in terms of topography and compass points. I, on the other hand, seemed to spend most of my childhood getting lost – literally, or with my head in a book – and I still find it hard to ‘walk through’ even my most well-trodden running routes in my mind’s eye. I can picture the beginnings and ends and recall random and eclectic landmarks along the way – a majestic oak, a discarded teddy on the grass verge – but some of the middle miles are missing. It’s the equivalent of losing your GPS signal in a tunnel. Jeff’s brain probably looks a bit like an ordnance survey map. Mine, more of a dot-to-dot colouring book.

However dodgy my mental maps are, though, I can trust my feet to link together the missing pieces once I’m actually out there running. And luckily, it’s not because I’m relying on GPS, which may degrade my mind-mapping skills still further. When Japanese researchers tested the navigational prowess of their subjects on six different routes using either GPS, a paper map or direct experience (being escorted along the routes first) they found that those using GPS made the most mistakes and were the least able to sketch a map of where they’d been afterwards.  [University of Tokyo 2008] Other neurology researchers have voiced concerns that GPS is eroding our ability to navigate using our own grey matter and causing us to disengage from our environment.

A couple of days after ‘nav-gate’, Jeff and I are running together through dense forest and keep losing the path. ‘Ah, it’s this way,’ I suddenly say, confident because I’ve run this way before on my own and remember having to crawl through the mud under this fallen branch. ‘Do you really think you would have come this far?’ Jeff asks doubtfully.

‘Yes. I remember seeing a diet coke can on the ground somewhere.’

Moments later, we pass the can.