Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Often the places we grow up in… influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us.”

Place, Personhood, and the Hippocampus: The Fascinating Science of Magnetism, Autonoeic Consciousness, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote in her lyrical love letter to her native Highlands, echoing an ancient intuition about how our formative physical landscapes shape our landscapes of thought and feeling. The word “genius” in the modern sense, after all, originates in the Latin phrase genius loci — “the spirit of a place.”

I find myself thinking about Shepherd as I return to the Bulgarian mountains of my own childhood, trekking the same paths with my mother that I once trudged with tiny feet beside her, astonished at the flood of long-ago feelings rushing in with each step, astonished too at how effortlessly I navigate these routes I have not walked in decades.

The psychological, neurocognitive, and geophysical underpinnings of these astonishments are what M.R. O’Connor explores in Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World (public library) — a layered inquiry into the science and cultural poetics of how we orient in space and selfhood, illuminating the stunning interpenetration of the two.

“View of Nature in Ascending Regions” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1893. This print is also available as a stationery card, face mask, or as a print.

In a passage evocative of Rebecca Solnit’s memorable observation that “never to get lost is not to live,” O’Connor takes the telescopic perspective of evolutionary time to consider the cognitive handicap beneath this existential gift:

Life on earth has created millions of Ulyssean species undertaking epic journeys at scales both large and small. It is an individual human problem to get lost. Amazing navigators are a common trait among animals, which can take them on journeys beyond what we humans could manage. Arctic tern is the most famous animal to migrate. This four-ounce, flying argonaut travels approximately forty-four thousand miles each year, from Greenland to Antarctica. Flying with the wind, the tern’s return itinerary isx a globe-trotter’s fantasy, circumnavigating Africa and South America.


One of the devices that an animal needs to navigate is a “clock” — an internal mechanism for measuring or keeping time. The daily mass migration of zooplankton in the world’s oceans requires them to know when dawn and dusk are approaching. Although it seems that this response is simple to light stimuli. Deep-sea Zooplankton live below the surface of light and migrate accordingly with different latitudes. Multi-clocks may be required for more complicated migrations.

One of the most impressive internal clocks is that of the Bermuda fireworm. This bioluminescent Bermuda fireworm swarms tropical waters just fifty-seven mins after sunset every third night after the full Moon. This feat shows that this small marine organism has three timekeeping devices. One is a 24-hour regular diurnal clock and one is a lunar clock. The interval clock tracks the minutes after sunset.

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. Available as a printed and wall clock.

O’Connor marvels at the staggering evolutionary array of timekeeping devices that allows migratory species to keep partaking of the dance of life:

Animals that complete annual migrations or multiyear migrations have to possess a yearly clock, one that is finely attuned to the lengths of days and nights and their changes across each season. In all, evolution seems to have produced annual clocks, lunar clocks, tidal clocks, circadian clocks, and, perhaps for those that migrate under cover of darkness, a sidereal clock — which measures the time it takes a star to appear to travel around the earth.

Nonhuman animals also have intricate space-mapping systems, in addition to the intricate timekeeping. Humpback whales spend more than 10000 miles each year traveling to their birthplace. There are bird species — European pied flycatchers, blackcaps, and indigo buntings among them — that appear to orient by the pole star in their nocturnal flight; there are insect species — ants and bees among them — that perform triumphs of trigonometry with their light-sensitive photoreceptors, calculating spatial distances by polarized light to find the most direct route home after a winding pathway of foraging. With their mere milligram-brains of one million neurons — a grain of sand to the Mont Blanc of our eighty-six billion — and 20/2000 vision that renders them blind by human standards, honeybees make hundreds of foraging trips per day, meandering many miles from home, then compute the “beeline” back. African ball-rolling dung beetles, Namibian desert spiders, and southern cricket frogs use the stars of the Milky Way as their compass, just like some of the most courageous members of our own species once used the constellations to find their way to freedom from the moral cowardice of tyranny: To ensure they were moving northward, migrants on the Underground Railroad were instructed to keep the river on one side and “follow The Drinking Gourd” — an African name for Ursa Major, or The Big Dipper.

“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Levi Walter Yaggy from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography, 1887. Available as a print or face mask as well as as stationery cards.

As with all truth-radicalizing discoveries, that defy common instincts of the creature’s limited intuitions was dismissed long ago as akin more to spiritualism than science. Humphry Davy — the greatest chemist of the Golden Age of chemistry, charismatic pioneer of the scientific lecture as popular entertainment — was keenly interested in the mystery of animal magnetism. A century after him, Nikola Tesla — a dazzling mind epochs ahead of his time in myriad ways, whose legacy shapes so much of our daily lives and whose name is now the measuring unit of magnetic fields — stood a chance of cracking the mystery, given with his twin passions for pigeons and magnetism, but the opprobrium of the scientific establishment was too impenetrable and the technology was not yet there. It wasn’t until 1958 that a young German graduate student — Wolfgang Wiltschko — was tasked with disproving animal magnetic navigation once and for all. It was actually proved by him: He let the bird-free experiment, which he did, in the same space without any lighting source, and the birds were able to orient themselves effortlessly, exactly as in his original experiment.

O’Connor writes:

The notion that animals have a bio-compass that can “read” the earth’s geomagnetic field has now emerged as the most promising explanation of animal navigation. A majority of animals tested so far, including marathon-migratory birds, have been able to locate the geomagnetic field. At Prague’s fish market, carp float in bathtubs and align themselves along a north-south direction. Newts, cattle and deer at rest align their bodies in the north-south direction. Dogs do this when they need to relieve themselves. When they are grazing their horses and cattle, deer, as well as deer, orientate their bodies to the north. But this does not happen if there is power. Nearly all red foxes will attack any mouse from the northeast. All of these organisms need to have an organelle that acts as a magnetoreceptor. This is the same function an ear gets sound or an eye gets space.

Magnetism with Key by Berenice Abbott, 1958, from her series Documenting Science.

The world is not only orientated in space for us humans, it’s also orientated in time. Mental time travel — the ability to rememeber and reflect, to imagine and plan for the future — is what made us human. It is also the pillar of our personal identity — the narrative string that links our childhood selves to our present selves to make us, across a lifetime of physical and psychological changes, one person.

That string is known as autonoeic consciousness, from the Greek noéō: “I perceive,” “I fathom” — our capacity for mental self-representation as entities in time that can reflect on our own lives as continuous and coherent phenomena of being. The hippocampus has been the center of our autoneoic and spatial consciousnesses in the short time that neuroscience was developing. O’Connor writes:

The hippocampus has sometimes been described as the human GPS, but this metaphor is reductive compared to what this remarkable, plastic part of our minds accomplishes. While a GPS identifies fixed positions or coordinates in space that never change, neuroscientists think what the hippocampus does is unique to us as individuals — it builds representations of places based on our point of view, experiences, memories, goals, and desires. This is the foundation of our selfhood.

The human hippocampus contains an astrocyte. One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s little-known ink drawings.

The self is an accumulation of experience, memories, impressions and patterns. Because sleep is the time when our memories are consolidated and we draw these organizing patterns from them, it is vital to our understanding of ourselves. O’Connor quotes MIT neuroscientist Matt Wilson:

During sleep you try to make sense of things you already learned… You go into a vast database of experience and try to figure out new connections and then build a model to explain new experiences. Wisdom refers to the set of rules that are based upon experience and allow us make smart decisions in new circumstances.

The hippocampus is a hard-won glory of evolution, but it is not singular to us — rudiments of it and variations on it are found in some of our fellow animals across the rungs of neural complexity:

Even birds, which last shared an ancestor with humans 250 million years ago, as well as amphibians, lungfish, and reptiles, have what is called a medial pallium. Like the mammalian hipocampal formations in vertebrates (mammalian), the medial Pallium also participates in spatial tasks. It is possible that some properties of spatial cognition have been conserved in organisms as they diversify or split. Other properties may be adapted to certain ecologies and selective forces. But despite the profound evolutionary commonalities between humans and other vertebrates and the way the hippocampus relates to cognitive functions of memory and navigation, the question remains: why did we make such a leap in terms of hippocampi’s size and role in our lives? Or as psychologist Daniel Casasanto puts it, “How did foragers become physicists in the eye blink of evolutionary time?”

Part of the answer might lie in the remarkable plasticity of the hippocampus. After the now-iconic 2000 study of the brains of London taxi drivers — which found that their elaborate qualification exam, requiring the memorization of thousands of city landmarks and 25,000 streets, resulted in significant increase in synapses and gray matter in the hippocampus — scientists have been studying what we can do to protect and even bolster our primary instrument for navigating space and selfhood.

O’Connor points to the work of McGill University neuroscientist Véronique Bohbot, who has devised a hippocampal health regimen of recollection and navigation exercises of incrementally increasing difficulty that deliver marked structural growth of gray matter. VeboLife — the neurocognitive fitness training program she has devised — teaches people to navigate the familiar environment in deliberately novel ways, challenging trainees to reconfigure their default routes by taking new paths that require them to attend to new details and make new mental maps in the process.

Optimal hippocampal health appears to be — like the optimal experience of life itself — a matter of paying active and mindful attention, interrupting the “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” our brain has evolved to be, savoring the specifics of each unrepeatable moment.

With an eye to how our hippocampal acuity determines the quality of our lives, O’Connor wonders:

Maybe wayfinding is an activity that confronts us with the marvelous fact of being in the world, requiring us to look up and take notice, to cognitively and emotionally interact with our surroundings whether we are in the wilderness or a city, even calling us to renew our species’ love affair with freedom, exploration, and place.

Yet, as wanderlust drives us to explore new places and achieve a deep connection with the land and topographies from our childhoods, it is also triggering. An emotion known as topophilia, which I experienced while revisiting those mountain trails of my childhood, furnishes this affective-spatial memory that renders childhood as much a time as a place.

Major rivers and mountains of the world compared by length and height, from Atlas de Choix, ou Recueil des Meilleures Cartes de Geographie Ancienne et Moderne Dressees par Divers Auteurs by J. Goujon and J. Andriveau, 1829. This print is also available as a stationery card, a face mask and a printed version.

O’Connor writes:

Often the places we grow up in have outsized influence on us. They influence how we perceive and conceptualize the world, give us metaphors to live by, and shape the purpose that drives us — they are our source of subjectivity as well as a commonality by which we can relate to and identify with others. Maybe it’s because of the vividness of their sensory impressions, their genius for establishing deep relationships to their early environments, that children have a strong capacity for the human emotion called topophilia.


Across cultures, navigation is influenced by particular environmental conditions — snow, sand, water, wind — and topographies — mountain, valley, river, ocean, and desert. However, in each case it’s a way to build a feeling of connection and affection for specific places. Navigation is a process of familiarity and fondness. This is how one can fall in love a mountain, or forest. It is the way we create treasure maps full of wonderful memories through Wayfinding.

In the remainder of the thoroughly fascinating Wayfinding, O’Connor maps the most thrilling shorelines of our evolving territories of understanding: astounding findings indicating that people from migratory populations have measurably longer alleles of the dopamine receptor gene associated with exploratory behavior than people from sedentary communities; ancient feats of navigation passed down the generations in native cultures to challenge the Western social theory of culture; music as a metaphor for the relationship between organisms and their environment. For a lyrical counterpart, complement it with Rebecca Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost.

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