I’ve always been interested in the idea of new places. It’s strange how when first arriving in an unfamiliar place, you see it very differently from how you do after being there a few weeks, or even days. You no longer get lost as much, but the novelty of the being in another environment begins to wear off.
In his novel Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman talks about a world without memory, where “many walk with maps, directing the map-holders from one arcade to the next in the city they have lived in all their lives, in the street they have traveled for years”. In a way, visiting a new place is exactly like the experience that Lightman describes; however, unlike the people who have lived in that place all their lives, we’ve never actually been there before. Having no memory of a place, therefore, compels us to interact with it and create new memories so that we are able to orient ourselves within a certain periphery.
Last year, my friends and I were invited for a party in someone’s apartment in Stuy Town. The cab dropped us outside the building complex and all we had to do was walk inside and find the right building. We found ourselves surrounded by the same tall, brown, block-shaped buildings and began reading the numbers in front of them. We circled around some trees, found ourselves back to the same blocks, tried new directions, but ended up confusing ourselves further. I called up my friend to ask him for directions which we failed to follow, since “turn right from the first square near the entrance and then keep going straight” meant nothing when there were a bunch of different squares and paths that were leading us into a labyrinth of more of the same buildings.
We even tried to use Google Maps to find our way to the right building, but it was cold, dark, and raining, so we ran out of patience. Eventually we just tried to trace our steps back to where we came from and then waited for a friend to come and get us. Everything looked so similar that we couldn’t create landmarks or figure out how to get out of that maze. We felt just as lost as those people in Lightman’s book, as we didn’t have and couldn’t create any spatial memories of the place.
Researchers have now found what seems to be a biological link to our understanding of places through their discovery of place cells and grid cells. David Redish, a neuroscientist that lent more insight into this finding, asserted that “grid cells form an internal positioning system, and place cells use that information along with other cues to create a sense of place. Together, they create a rich map”. Without a repeated exposure to the place, or any familiarity to it, it would then be difficult to create a sense of place without any input information going into the place cells. This would explain why we got so lost- and were unable to use cues in the environment to orient ourselves when everything around us looked the same.
I know that if I go back to Stuy Town a few times (hopefully in the daylight), I’d be able to find my way and eventually walk directly to any particular building without getting lost. After all, you don’t see a group of dazed residents strolling around, hoping to find their apartments soon. This feeling of being lost is temporary; thanks to the biological and mental processes that help us acclimatize to a new place. However, it might be helpful to leave a trail of breadcrumbs the next time you plan to visit a particularly confusing and unfamiliar neighborhood.