For Sam, running routes have meaning
Icome in from my run, grinning with the pleasure of it.
‘ Where did you go?’ asks my husband, Jeff. We’re on holiday, and just getting to know our surroundings.
‘ 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…’ His eyes float upwards: he’s following my route in his head. ‘Then through that bit with the overhanging branches covered in moss.’ This evidently doesn’t tally with his own mental map, so he asks, ‘ Which path did you take out of the clearing?’ ‘ What clearing?’ ‘At the top of the path, there’s a clearing with three different trails off it. Which 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 that each of us has created of this place in our mind’s eye is unique.
Mental maps aren’t clinical, like paper ones. They are shaped not by 2cm squares but by the experiences we accrue as we run: here’s where I felt scared by the remoteness of the trail; this is the route I ran the last weekend I saw my nan before she died. We don’t just run a route, we engage with it.
What intrigues me, though, 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 of the brain.
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 spent most of my childhood getting lost – literally, or with my head in a book – and I still find it hard to recreate even my most well trodden running routes in my mind’s eye. I can picture the beginnings and ends, and recall random landmarks – a majestic oak, a dead owl, a discarded teddy – but some of the middle miles are missing. It’s the equivalent of losing your GPS signal in a tunnel.
However dodgy my mental maps are, though, I can trust my feet to link together the missing pieces once I’m out there. And, thankfully, it’s not because I’m relying on GPS, which scientists believe may erode our mind-mapping skills. When Japanese researchers1 tested the navigational prowess of their subjects on six routes, using either GPS, a paper map or direct experience, they found those using GPS made the most mistakes and afterwards were the least able to sketch a map of where they’d been. Other researchers have voiced concerns that GPS is causing us to disengage from our environment.
A couple of days after ‘nav-gate’, Jeff and I are running together through dense forest and we 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 a fallen branch. ‘ Do you think you came this far?’ Jeff asks doubtfully.
‘ Yes. I remember seeing a Diet Coke can on the ground.’
Moments later, we pass the can.