Finding Our Way

“A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.” – Jean de La Fontaine

In wooded areas masked by snow, wolves often take long, complex, winding, unplanned paths when hunting − but they can still return directly to the distant location of their pups. Elephants have been recorded navigating distances over roughly 100 km a month; during these trips they frequently visit isolated and distant waterholes despite navigating environments devoid of any stable landmarks. Captured Burmese pythons driven more than 30 kilometers into the everglades of South Florida have been tracked heading directly from their displacement site back to their home territory.

The navigating behavior we see in animals is also present in humans in varying degrees. In the case of wayfinding or cognitive mapping, specific cells in the hippocampus region of the brain, like place and grid cells, are utilized to create and then use detailed maps. This process develops slowly and deriving information from these cognitive maps takes time. Routes, on the other hand, involve stimulus–response strategies dependent on the caudate nucleus of the striatum. Once learned, routes involve very little decision-making processes and as such become fast and efficient.

Simply put, the ability to travel from point A to point B along a path that is most efficient but not previously travelled depends on spatial mapping and is a cognitive skill. Retravelling routes previously explored requires little cognitive processing but can be repeated rapidly and with little effort. Which would you think we do more often?

Unless we have a stimulus to do so, we tend to follow the same paths over and over. This is true in actual spatial travel, but I believe it is true in our mental and spiritual travels as well.

If you have attended on-boarding with Bob and me, you have heard Bob talk about the fresh look a new team member brings to our community. He asks if anyone has ever experienced driving home from work and, once home, not being able to remember the actual drive. Many raise their hands or nod in recognition. Because the path is so well known, it requires no cognitive effort to travel it. It is only when something new or unforeseen literally crosses our path (like someone running a red light or pulling out in front of you) that the cognitive part of our brain wakes up and starts processing.

This is a handy thing for our brains to do. It would be exhausting if we had to contemplate brushing our teeth every morning and evening. However, this can lead us to continue to travel paths that are at best inefficient and, at worst, harmful. Enter a new team member. Not having ever done what we do, every step and part of the process is new to them. They have no repeatedly traveled paths, so everything requires cognitive processing and therefore more honest evaluation. They are not quite as efficient as someone with more experience, but they see things we have long since stop noticing.

This applies to our personal lives in our mental and spiritual activities. Left to ourselves we may sink into comfortable and familiar paths. If I were to be less diplomatic, I might say we get lazy. It is easier if we don’t question. More comfortable to remain in the well-worn groove. But it is also dangerous. We run the risk of becoming settled with what we know, when what we know cannot ever be the whole story.

Every so often we need to invoke the wayfinding part of our brains and strike off on a path we have not traveled. Read something by someone you are likely to disagree with. Listen to music outside your normal genres. Have an honest discussion with someone who comes from a different faith. Spend time with someone whose life differs from yours significantly and do it in their space and their way.

Intentionally creating a “red light running” moment in our mental and spiritual travels gives us the chance to add data to our cognitive map. We learn about the “landscape” in ways that impact our future navigation. Often, we fear this process, thinking it will lead us to places we don’t want to go or change us in ways we don’t want to change. If where we have been going is unhealthy or unsafe then we are better for it. If where we have been going is truly home, then, like the wolves, we become capable of navigating back from ever more distant travels.

Wherever we go, once the cognitive process is awake, we may find that we notice people we have been driving right by.