Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation

Norton. Jan. 2022. 256p. ISBN 9781324005384. $26.95. SCI
“Navigation is one of the most cognitively complex tasks our brains perform,” writes Kemp (molecular biology, Michigan State Univ.; Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris). Here the “navigationally challenged” author takes a deep dive into the neurobiology of navigation in an effort to understand his own shortcomings. He frames his exploration with the compelling story of Amanda Eller who became lost in a forest on Maui in 2019; it isn’t until the last chapter that readers discover what happened to her. In between, Kemp writes about place cells (a type of neuron that codes for location), grid cells (which code for direction and distance), and head-direction cells (which function like an internal compass). Other topics Kemp explores include the effects of GPS on spatial memory and solitary confinement’s devastating impacts on the navigational skills of incarcerated people. In addition to copious notes, the book includes two useful appendices.
VERDICT Chock-full of scientific information conveyed by a skilled storyteller, Kemp’s book is recommended for readers interested in the neurological differences between those who have an internal compass and those who get hopelessly lost.
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