Astray in a dark wood…

12 June 2020

If the brain tackles social challenges in a similar way to how it tackles spatial ones, you might expect these two skill sets to be closely related. Are they? If you’re good at navigating in an unfamiliar city without GPS, are you also likely to be good at deciphering the social dynamics of your workplace and using them to your advantage? Intuitive as this sounds, there isn’t yet the evidence to make this leap. Many factors influence social intelligence beyond those processed by the hippocampus. There’s little doubt, though, that good mental health depends to some degree on the functioning of this part of your brain. Depression, schizophrenia, sociopathy, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and autism are all associated with hippocampal dysfunction. The chronic stress of these conditions appears to cause it to atrophy (though it’s possible that the decay precedes the disease). This would explain why mental illness can be so indiscriminate in the way it impacts cognition: a wilted hippocampus, like a furred-up heart, impedes many vital functions.

The effect of mental illness on social cognition – the shrinking of our capacity to read ‘social maps’ and to form and understand relationships – may be its most debilitating characteristic. Depression is above all a disease of loneliness. Seriously depressed people inhabit an ante-world: they watch from the cave of their mind as life passes them by. In This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression, Daphne Merkin describes her loneliness as having ‘wrapped itself around my bones like a shadow, moving forward or backward whenever I did.’ William Styron, whose Darkness Visible was one of the first memoirs of the illness (remarkably it was published as recently as 1990), felt it as ‘an immense and aching solitude’. It is hard to overestimate the terror of such isolation, and of how it might end. It is the terror of being lost. For Styron, the most fitting metaphor for his depression lay in these three lines from Dante’s Inferno:

In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself astray in a dark wood

where the straight road had been lost sight of.

Anyone who has gone astray in a dark wood, or on a moor or mountain, will attest to the visceral thought-distorting fear it induces. Being truly lost touches something primitive. For our ancestors in the Palaeolithic, it would have meant almost certain death – little surprise, then, that some of that remains. Being lost is not the same as being depressed, but they share some of the emotional and psychological consequences: the distorted decision-making, the sense of alienation from all that surrounds you, the conviction that you will die. They also share a language: depressed people describe themselves as adrift, outcast, at sea. Being mentally and physically lost seem metaphorically, and perhaps cognitively, compatible. In depression there is no safe space.

Sometimes, the sense of being adrift comes full circle and sufferers find that they have trouble orientating themselves physically as well as psychologically. Researchers at the University of Calgary have shown that people who are highly neurotic or who suffer from low self-esteem find it especially difficult to form cognitive maps and to envisage spatial relationships between landmarks (to build a ‘bird’s-eye view’ of a scene). Most likely this is because of the debilitating effects of stress hormones on the place cells in their hippocampus. Other studies have shown that patients with PTSD are similarly handicapped. In this case, rather than collateral damage, their spatial glitch may actually be triggering their illness. Unable to process the context of a traumatic scene and consolidate it as a coherent memory, as we do with normal events, they are condemned to re-live the negative part over and over in flashbacks.

Psychological and cognitive conditions can lead to curious habits of spatial behaviour. Search and rescue experts who track missing people have identified distinct patterns of wandering specific to different disorders, which they use to help determine where to look. They have noticed, for example, that people with dementia, who are usually disorientated even before they start wandering, tend to travel in a straight line. Dementia patients account for the second-largest category of people reported missing by search and rescue authorities in the UK; they are outnumbered by more than two to one by despondents and the clinically depressed who wander off deliberately.

Why would hopelessness propel people to walk? Perhaps they have lost their way and are walking to find it. Or they are trying to get away from the unhappy place they have washed up in. Or they have decided to disappear completely. Rescuers know where to search first: the suicidal often head straight for a final look at a place they are familiar with – a picnic spot, a viewpoint or a favourite walking wood. There is succour in meaningful places, even when we are seeing them for the last time.

If our psychology subverts our interactions with space and place, then the opposite is also true: restrictive environments can trigger mental breakdown. ‘There are many ways to destroy a person, but one of the simplest and most devastating is through prolonged solitary confinement,’ the philosopher Lisa Guenther writes in her 2013 study of the subject. Maximum-security prisoners, kidnap victims and others held in small spaces for long periods suffer great anguish as a result of their confinement. Panic attacks, paranoia, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, obsessional thinking, distorted perceptions, hallucinations and difficulties in thinking and memory are the norm, and full-blown psychosis and permanent psychological damage are not uncommon. Forced to live in a space the size of a double-bed, their cognitive functions, so many of which are spatially organized, appear to collapse. It is an affront not just to a person’s dignity and mobility, but to the core of their being.

Above all, solitary confinement is a deprivation of social space. ‘A grey limitless ocean stretches out in front of and behind you – an emptiness and loneliness so all-encompassing it threatens to erase you.’ This is Sarah Shourd, who was held for 410 days in a tiny Iranian prison cell between 2009 and 2010 (note how she reframes her lack of space as desolation extending to the infinite, an equivalent hell). Shourd experienced what sociologists call a ‘social death’: the conviction that everyone she knew had forgotten her, and that she was turning into someone irrevocably different. So much of our identity is socially constructed that without meaningful contact with others we struggle to know who we are. Guenther, the philosopher, says confining someone to a place in which all they can do is pace back and forth denies them something the rest of us take for granted: ‘an open-ended perception of the world as a space of mutual belonging and interaction with others.’

Eventually, many prisoners in solitary confinement go from feeling starved of human contact to being disorientated and threatened by the thought of it. They lose the ability or the inclination to form social maps, which makes it hard for them to adjust to normal life after their release. In America today there are around 80,000 prisoners in some form of solitary confinement, despite the fact that in 2011 the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a world-wide ban on its use because of the lasting mental damage it causes.


Just as the loss of space can crush us, the judicious and creative use of it can bring salvation. Some people in solitary confinement have managed to keep their minds more or less intact by embarking on flights of imagination that allowed them to transcend the horrors of their physical reality. Michael Jewell, who spent forty years in prison in Texas for murder, said he coped with seven years of isolation by inventing fantasy scenarios in which he roamed open spaces and interacted with strangers. He told the magazine Nautilus:

I might imagine myself at a park and come upon a person sitting on a bench. I would ask if she or he minded if I sat down. I’d say something like, ‘Great weather today.’ The other person would respond something like, ‘It is indeed.’ As we conversed, I would watch joggers, bicyclists and skateboarders pass by. The conversation might go on for half an hour or so. When I opened my eyes and stood, I would feel refreshed and even invigorated.

You don’t have to be locked in a windowless cell to benefit from spatial imagining – it can help us in everyday life. In meditation, a useful way of detaching yourself from distracting thoughts is literally to distance yourself from them by imagining them across a stretch of water or rising into the sky. Many authors visualize the arc of their narratives before writing them. J. R. R. Tolkien made several maps of ‘Middle-earth’, his fantastical setting for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to help him develop the characters and storylines – he said he ‘wisely started with a map and made the story fit’. Creating and telling stories can be a way of evolving our own narratives at times of crisis or renewal. In The Wounded Storyteller, the sociologist Arthur Frank argues that stories ‘repair the damage that illness has done to the ill person’s sense of where she is in life, and where she may be going. Stories are a way of re-drawing maps and finding new destinations.’ 

We can exercise our cognitive maps just as effectively by being spatial, which means interacting with physical space whenever we can. We often do this without realizing: watch someone pacing to and fro as they chat on the phone, tracing the path of their conversation on the pavement. Chances are they won’t remember their meanderings, though they serve a purpose: mapping out a problem in physical space makes it easier to think it through and remember it. Barbara Tversky, a cognitive psychologist at Stanford University, has found that people are better at remembering a description of a complex space if they draw it out with their hands while learning it. Gestures do more than communicate thoughts: they also map meanings and ideas when words alone are not enough. Again, this may not be all that surprising: as Tversky says, ‘Long before there was language, there was space.’

What is the hippocampus doing when we interact with our surroundings or engage in spatial imagining? Firing on all cylinders, most likely. An active hippocampus implies healthy cognition, and certain spatial activities are particularly effective at exercising it. Navigating using GPS, which is the equivalent of being led by the nose, is not one of them – in fact, it uses another part of the brain entirely. By contrast, navigating spatially by studying the lie of the land and picturing where you are in relation to where you want to be – by building a cognitive map, in other words – is the road to cognitive riches. This may be especially true for those whose hippocampi have been damaged by depression, PTSD or other disorders. The researchers in Calgary who identified the link between neuroticism and spatial ability think that encouraging people with mental illness to navigate could help relieve their symptoms, by stimulating the growth of place cells in the hippocampus. Biology aside, spatial navigation – which requires focusing on the relationships between landmarks – can be a template for a healthy mental life and a foil against loneliness and even depression. Therapists often encourage their patients to connect with people and viewpoints beyond their immediate experience, to build relationships, so as to counter the inward-looking orientation that comes with mental distress.

The idea that you can navigate your way out of loneliness is consistent with the way epidemiologists and public health officials have come to understand this condition. In 2009, researchers at three American universities mapped the distribution of lonely people in a social network of several thousand in Massachusetts. They discovered that lonely people tend to be clustered together, meaning that if you are lonely, the people you most often come into contact with are more likely to be lonely themselves, which is one reason why loneliness can be so hard to shake off. Some local authorities in the UK have started producing ‘loneliness maps’ to help them identify and target their most isolated residents. The obvious next step would be to help these people map their way to greater companionship, ideally by connecting them with residents beyond their immediate social circle.

To be able to wayfind ourselves into a positive state of mind sounds too good to be true, but the healthy consequences of exercising our inner maps makes sense when you consider how crucial they have been to our evolution and development. We are spatial beings, and the way we experience our environment affects us deeply. In the next chapter, we’ll look a little more closely at that interaction: how our brains make sense of unfamiliar places, the mental strategies we use to help us find our way, and the cognitive mechanisms that keep us tethered to our surroundings (and why they don’t always work). The world is vast, strange and occasionally terrifying; for all our technology and sophistication, it can seem incredible that we aren’t forever adrift in it.

- Michael Bond is a writer on psychology, behaviour and wilderness. Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way  is available now in hardback (Picador, £20).

You can find lots on wayfinding and spatial cognition in our archive, including:

Going underground: producing alternative London Tube maps 
How does a yak find a drink?
Building spatial skills in preschool
Walking the radical talk
Finding a route to independence
Hugo Spiers, and his Sea Hero Quest project
The people who can echolocate
Why do people walk in circles when they're lost?
The shaping of us
Tracking big data in the big city
Why do so many concepts of consciousness use spatial metaphors?

We're keen to produce a special feature on finding our way, or being lost. If you have ideas, get in touch with the editor on [email protected]