Mur­phy’s Lore

Runner's World (UK) - - IN THIS ISSUE - BY SAM MUR­PHY

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.

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