Ditch the Map. It's Ruining Your Brain - A General Overview of Human Factors and Navigation

The title might be an exaggeration but this is a follow up to this thread: Opinion | Ditch the GPS. It’s ruining your brain. - WP

This interview of the author goes into a little more depth the WP article :What do we lose when we can’t get lost?

Not all navigation cultures use maps for way finding, this is from the article:

I think this link between navigation and storytelling was also something that was unexpected to me. We are the only species that seems to have so thoroughly used memory to assist us in the task of navigation. That’s what’s called episodic memory, which is our ability to recall events that happened in the past based in the hippocampus, which is the same exact area of the brain where navigation and spatial orientation takes place. Interestingly, the hippocampus is also this part in the brain that allows us to imagine ourselves in the future.

It seems that the hippocampus is intrinsic to this ability to develop narratives and stories about where we were in the past, how we came to be, where we are now, and where we are going in the future. It is really interesting that navigation may have helped us to develop this narrative capacity.

When the AB asks the mate to teach him navigation the answer should be " You already know how, otherwise how did you get here?" We all already know how to navigate. The purest way to navigate is just to make our way through our environment.

What the AB wants to learn of course is the skills and procedures the mate in charge of a navigational watch is using.

In an unfamiliar environment when clues are lacking navigating by landmarks alone can become too difficult or too risky. However, the map (or chart) allows us to convert the window-view into a simplified, bird’s eye, two-dimensional view.

Once the most salient parts of the real world are simplified and reduced for us by the cartographer the task of the navigator is reduced to selecting only points of navigational significance on the chart and then locating the corresponding places based on the DR position via compass. At that point actual bearing and ranges are taken and the DR position is corrected (or fixed) with a fix.

From there shifting from a paper map to ECDIS/GPS is just a matter of degree or layer of abstraction as in both cases we abstract away the real world to simplify the problem of way-finding.

1 Like

The above applies to third mate’s situation on the Exxon Valdez

When there is a pilot aboard the pilot navigates by looking out the window and converting what he sees into a mental model which he then uses to navigate. This requires familiarity with the area and experience in making the mental conversion.

The third mate on the other hand can not do this. Instead he uses a much simpler method. Using the paper chart the mate takes measurements (bearing and ranges) and enters that data into the model (the paper chart is a simple model of a small part of real world) and gets an output - the ship’s position.

This is why the third made cannot “start turning back towards the lanes when abeam…”. The captain is using the language of the pilot’s method but the third mate is not a pilot. Instead, when abeam the third mate plots a fix on the chart. That’s the only way he can make sense of the situation.

1 Like

We lose something and gain something with every new technology. Ancient Greeks worried about the invention of writing… writing down the epic poems would destroy people’s ability to memorize them. When I went to college there were no calculators (yes, I’m that old). We solved problems with slide rules. Whether to allow the new fangled calculators in school or not was a big issue.

Now comes Google maps, ECDIS and GPS. Resist if you want, but I suspect you’re fighting a losing battle and the issue will soon be as quaint as Greek poets and writing.


Well, that we should ditch our maps was not meant seriously.

More really that using what John Huth calls “cultures of navigation” as a framework can sometimes be a useful way to understand how people within different cultures navigate.

But it’s not just culture in the larger sense such as Western European and the Pacific Islands but also on a finer scale, for example how fisherman in Alaska navigate compared to say a modern river pilot.

That these differences in navigation techniques across cultures are not appreciated was apparent here for example when the grounding of the icebreaker Fenica near Dutch Harbor was discussed.

The grounding was a result of the pilot taking the ship over a shoal whose charted depths was based on old surveys.

I made the point that mariners in Alaska in general don’t trust the charts but that the accuracy of the chart was going to be an issue.

There was disagreement on this point but the disagreement was from two different points of view. One view was from “lower 48” based mariners making the point that the idea that charts can’t be trusted is nonsense.

The other disagreement was from the captain of an Alaskan trawler based in Dutch, his point was that it was nonsense that the charts were going to be an issue because everyone knows that charts cannot be trusted and that shoal in particular was known by the locals to be incorrectly charted.

So evidently just a small variation in the situation, charts assumed to be accurate in one area and assumed not to be in another can influence how the “navigation culture” in that area can evolve.
Really the point however is communicating across navigation cultures. The captain of the Exxon Valdez using the language of pilot culture to communicate to a third mate who uses chart-based navigation.

That’s a bit patronising. The third mate puts the positions on the chart because that’s his job, not because he’s not clever enough to understand what’s going on. Even if he did possess the brainpower to know where the vessel was merely by looking out of the window, someone would still have to plot the position on the chart.

I don’t see how it’s patronizing but in any case these observations are based on my own experience learning to navigate. I was first taught at the U.S. Navy Quartermaster “A school” and then on to navigate in Alaska on a Coast Guard Cutter.

I got a lot of experience there including the Inside Passage but I literally could not imagine any other way of navigating besides laying down a track, DRs and periodic fixes and so forth.

I was in for a big culture shock when I got my first job as mate on an Aleutian freighter and was not able to use that method due to available tools and time limits.

I was in for another shock when the gyro quit and no one cared but me.

EDIT: Also, as captain I have experience giving third mates instructions with regards to navigation and I can say that anything short of a specific track-line on the chart (or ECIDS now) is a risk.

Ok. Maybe it’s another nationality specific thing then, but in the UK you can’t be 3/O unless you’ve passed chartwork exams and proven you can do running fixes, horizontal sextant angles etc. (As well as the celestial stuff).

I can’t wait for Google Earth live stream. Even a 5 or 10 second delay would be OK with me.

This reminds me of that time I learned about inaccurate charts. I put her hard on the rocks in one of the side arms of the Prins Christian passage on Greenland, nowhere near any charted danger, right between two soundings of several hundred meters. I was so sure of myself that I kept looking for the ice berg until the old man ran topside and pointed out the rocks. He wasn’t even mad, and I was mortified beyond words. I guess I’d always known that you’ll hit something if you look too closely at a large scale chart, but that the best chart of the region might be outright wrong? Apparently that’s not just something they say…

Many years later, I was going downstream on one of the few stretches of the Danube that is charted with full bathymetry, following buoyage that showed the river bed to have shifted a lot in the last spring flood. This went swimmingly until I came to a red buoy high and dry on the left bank. Now what? I was suddenly very close to Navigational Mode 0, defined as stumbling home blind drunk on the wrong side of town, armed only with the vague notion that you need to go downhill until you hit the waterfront, then left until you hit the fence.

Running in Mode 0 is never very safe in an adverse environment, and that’s why you should hone it to a high level. Sooner or later you’ll be left with nothing but the seat of your pants.

1 Like

It occurs to me that the term orientation in the narrow sense of alignment to north is a key point here.

On a modern ship the north-up radar, ECDIS, centerline and wing compass repeaters are all driven by the gyro compass so everything is oriented to true north same as the chart.

By contrast on the Aleutian freighter there is only a single compass but ship’s heading on each leg orients the head-up radar and the outside view to the chart. It’s just an additional step in the mental process.

But the third mate maneuvering a supertanker in a tight spot has to orient in a broader sense. More along the lines of orient in the OODA loop because he also lacks a intuitive understanding of the maneuvering characteristics of the ship due to lack of experience.

On the smaller more maneuverable ship advance, transfer and ROT can be disregarded for the most part. Only need to consider such things as constant radius turns on a landmark, natural ranges and the like.

The titile of this thread is a little bit of an inside joke based on a previous thread that used the WP headline “Ditch the GPS it’'s ruining your brain”

If you read the interview the author of the book was making the point that with regards the use of GPS the same was also true of maps. It’s just a matter of degree.

I didn’t intend to seriously suggest people stop using maps. I’ve edited the title.

2 posts were merged into an existing topic: Exxon Valdez Grounding

It was a mistake to mention the EV in this thread, to get back to the OP;

Imagine a scenario where the mate on watch has to navigate a restricted passage at night in good visibility, a couple dog-leg turns or the like and he has the cadet to help.

In the case the bridge is equipped with a GPS that displays current Lat/Long only the lat/long numbers alone are not very useful so a track-line and DR times and so forth has to be plotted on the chart.

The mate can assign the cadet the task of transferring position from the GPS onto the chart which the third mate can then use as a cross-check to verify position.

While this might be a big help for the mate but the cadet doing the plotting would not be gaining any experience beyond the simple task of maintaining a simple paper plot.

Change the method from plotting GPS Lat/Long to taking and plotting bearings and ranges.

The second method, where the cadet plotting must interpret the radar display and match to the chart in order to plot takes higher level of skill but it is only is a bit more connected to the visual picture then GPS only plot. However either method is still a long ways from conning by eye alone. Far less overlap then one might expect.

Years ago transiting the English Channel as second mate I had a cadet on watch with me. Decca, radar ranges and visual bearings were the navigating tools used. At 24 to 27 knots I could plot a visual range and bearing as a check on the positions plotted by the cadet but could spend little time away from the conning position, overtaking a large number of vessels throughout the watch and avoiding crossing traffic.
Situational awareness was everything and without the cadet to record entries in the logbook and put fixes on the chart the watch could not be said to be maintained.
The ship maintained an average speed of 24 knots throughout the 12,000 mile voyage.

1 Like