When George Michelson Foy’s students ask him what to write about, he tells them, “Go to your blackest fear and use that.”

In his latest nonfiction book, Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human, the creative writing professor takes his own advice, diving headlong into an exploration of what he most dreads: getting lost. It’s a fear that he comes by honestly. An avid sailor, he grew up hearing family stories about how his great-grandfather, a Norwegian sea captain, died in a shipwreck after becoming disoriented in a storm. 

book cover: Finding North

Foy’s quest to make sense of his ancestor’s fate takes him into the labs of numerous researchers investigating the neurological and biological science of human navigation; to Haiti for an overnight voyage with a sloop captain who uses the stars as a map; into a heavily guarded command center he dubs “the dark heart of GPS,” at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs; into a fog off the coast of Maine on a boat outfitted with 19th-century instruments; and to Norway in search of his great-grandfather’s watery grave. 

Along the way, he develops a theory that wayfinding is an essential part of human identity and that the ubiquitous devices we clutch to keep from getting lost could be weakening some essential part of ourselves. In mourning the recent loss of his brother to lung cancer, Foy also offers a moving meditation on the geography of grief.

“I plan my routes around the physical world in large part based on what touches my life today and the emotional weight each course or landmark evokes,” Foy reflects on a walk through New York City’s East Village. “But those places of the present are balanced, overbalanced even, by the mass of blue coordinates, the sacred places where I lived with those who are gone. It feels sometimes as if two planes of navigation are involved here, one for the living, another for those I can no longer see.”

Foy recently charted a course to the NYU News offices to talk about what else he learned.

illustration: brain on a Google Maps spread

In the book, you explore “dead reckoning” both as a navigation technique and as a metaphor of sorts for how we understand our place in the world. How does it work?

On a ship, it’s your fallback position for when other methods of navigation fail. From where I live part of the time on Cape Cod, sailing to Nantucket is about 25 miles. Twenty-five miles at six knots is about three and a half or four hours, so if I don’t see land after that amount of time, I’ll know there’s something wrong and I’m lost. But dead reckoning is something we use all the time, not just at sea. If you’re walking to a restaurant on Ninth Avenue in New York, and you remember that it’s roughly a five-minute walk, once you’ve walked for ten minutes you know you have to go back and check. It’s the same when you’re finding your way to the bathroom in the dark—you’re subconsciously measuring your footsteps and how long it’s taking. Even GPS works on a similar principle—distance equals time divided by speed—using the time it takes for your device to reach a signal from different satellites to calculate your exact distance from those satellites.

How did speaking with scientists help you develop your thinking about the connections between place, memory, and emotion?

John Skoyles, a professor of philosophy and neuroscience at London University, was the first person to really explain for me how the hippocampus works. It’s a central processing area that indexes all of our memories spacially—meaning that each memory is tied to the specific environment where it happened. And then because the amygdalae, which are the seat of very strong emotions, are physically tacked on to the hippocampus, there’s a very direct link there too. Our emotions are navigated spatially within the brain and also without, by triangulation with the landmarks that we were near when they happened. The intertwining of the two becomes almost impossible to unravel.
Another researcher, Véronique Bohbot at the Douglas Institute in Montreal, has done some very important work correlating overuse of GPS—and other passivity-inducing screen devices—to increased susceptibility to Alzheimer’s and other diseases of memory. The memory and navigational functions are essentially one in the same, both inside the brain and in our lives. 

Are some people born to be explorers?

There is a part of the human genome—the allele DR-D47R or so-called “exploration gene”—whose importance I think has been greatly exaggerated. I talked to one of the top researchers in the field, Kenneth Kidd at Yale University, who said that no, this is certainly not an exploration gene—it’s just something we can trace to certain discreet groups of people who migrated farther when the planet was being settled. 

illustration: map inside a brain

That said, I do think that there are people who are more apt than others to go out on a limb. In the book I talk about the “navigational rheostat” as a measure of both your affinity and your ability to navigate. I think that goes beyond just a sense of direction, or your ability to spin three times in Washington Square Park with your eyes closed and still know which way you’re facing. It also applies intellectually in terms of your willingness to do real research—to go on quests to find stuff that’s unknown and possibly scary.

Do you think technologies like GPS have made people less interested in taking those risks?

A hundred years ago there probably was still that same dichotomy between the majority of people who were scared and the tiny minority who were willing to take risks and explore what was going on around them. And there’s always been a tension between wanting to navigate places we don’t know and not wanting to because we’re scared—I mean, the fear of being lost in the woods or in a dangerous neighborhood is completely rational and essential. We want to survive. But I’m afraid for humanity because I think we’ve evolved into a fear of ever getting into a position where we might get lost. That seems much more dominant now. I can’t prove it, but I think that because of electronic media, which have made us addicted to passively ingesting information, we’ve become even more vulnerable to that second kind of fear.

You write that when you first tried GPS, you found the experience to be “castrating.” Have you made peace with the technology?

I still don't really use it. Before I take a trip, I go on Google Maps to figure out my way, and then I draw a map in my notebook and try to follow that. I do end up looking at Google Maps again if I didn’t have time to draw my own, and I like seeing the little blue dot move on the map, especially in the car. But I try not to use the part where it gives you directions, because a big part of the problem with GPS that seems to induce greater susceptibility to dementia is the passivity factor—just blindly following directions or the dots on the screen. Plus, I have problems with authority anyway, so someone telling me where to go just pisses me off right from the start! I like looking around me for landmarks to try to figure out where I am—that’s using the active part of the brain. Humans are navigational creatures. We colonized almost all of this planet in 50,000 years. Interacting with the environment—trying to figure out where you are and what dangers there might be—is an incredibly complex process, and I think it’s fundamental to our humanity. When you just take instructions, you're not using that part of your identity at all, and it’s a really important part.