Recently I’ve been leafing through Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways (that’s the only way to read it really, don’t try going from beginning to end. you’ll just get dizzy) and I happened on Robert Bauval’s research on p. 295 where he identifies the correlation between the alignment of the stars in Orion’s Belt and the alignment of the pyramids of Giza (from a bird’s eye view). Bauval’s “Correlation Theory” contends this was an intentional choice by the pyramids’ designers. But, without the benefit of a bird’s eye view of the surface, it must have been a challenge for the Egyptians to intentionally mirror the location of those three stars. Of course, it’s not a particularly difficult pattern to mimic. Plus, they had all that great mathematics. Problem solved.
Then today I finally caught up on listening to some old Radiolab podcasts and was really impressed by the story from Stanford professor Dr. Lera Boroditsky. She described her experience with native people in Australia whose language involves references to personal location directly related to landscape(geographical, personal, social). Think, instead of Left-Right-Up-Down, it’s more North-South-East-West. Plus, their way of greeting consists of asking each other about where they are. So, instead of a greeting like “Hello, how are you?” “I am great,” it goes something like: “Where are you going?” “I’m going north-northeast.” This interaction forces people to be constantly paying attention to their trajectory in order and navigate the culture and socialize.
In order to successfully navigate the village she had to constantly remember her heading. After drawing looks of concern from the people she talked to for almost a week (she must be stupid if she doesn’t know where she is…) Boroditsky had a breakthrough. She describes an experience where she all of a sudden could see a “console” or “window, like in a video game” in her field of vision that revealed a bird’s eye view of the surrounding landscape with a “little red dot” to showing her location. When she shared this experience with someone, telling them how much easier it was to navigate, they responded, “Well, of course, how else would you do it?”
Sounds like learned augmented reality. The cultural relevance of trajectory and location through language enabled a superior direction sense in people of all ages that actually augmented their sight. For them it was normal, but for Boroditsky it was learned through forced participation with speaking the language.
Ancient Egyptians could have used a similar practice in order to negotiate space in the desert and mirror the night sky. After all, they did have the oldest known language. And what about all those crop circles? Even though I don’t mind theories of aliens burning holes in corn, it sounds even more impressive if those old farmers were just really aware of where they were and used the land to communicate their cultural symbols out to the heavens.
For most of us, constantly paying attention to where we are is not part of our normal cognitive load. If I didn’t live in a valley on the coast, I would be forever lost. When I travel away from the ocean or mountains, I get disoriented at seeing the void of a long, wide sky.
We use tools and technology (maps, landmarks, magnets, GPS) to find our way. We say that some people exhibit a good “direction sense” or “have a good nose for where they are.” Maybe these people are exhibiting a genetic instinct manifested from carried cultural traits like language or hunting/gathering/farming practices that were preoccupied with trajectory on a landscape.
Or, maybe they’re just paying better attention than I am.