The Walking Tour
Rats In A Maze
How walking shapes our minds. Maybe.


Considerable yammer-yammer ensued when New York Times poll analyst Nate Silver, wearing his newly tailored superhero’s cape, tweeted about a connection between walking and voting. He put it simply: “If a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

Generally, commentators thought that liberals were attracted to more densely settled areas, where sidewalks make sense. Here liberals found a communitarian, let’s-share-our-space approach that jibed with their values. Conservatives, on the other hand, put higher value on personal independence and property rights, and so tended to embrace a ”get-off-my-lawn,” go-it-alone worldview. They settled in areas where homes were farther apart and unconnected by sidewalks, and where personal space was less likely to be trampled by trespassers or twelve-year-olds.

But let me propose another theory, one drawn from some early ideas about cognitive mapping. Could it be that those who chiefly experience the world around them by car simply don’t think the same as those who get around by foot?

In other words, do sidewalks actually produce Democrats?

Stick with me on this.

The father of cognitive mapping is Edward Chance Tolman (1886-1959), an American psychologist born and raised in Massachusetts. He’s also the person largely responsible for the whole “rat in a maze” meme. (Margaret Atwood: "A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”) This was the most overused metaphor for the futility of existence until health clubs introduced us to the “running on a treadmill” meme.

Tolman was the author of a 1948 study entitled "Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men,” in which he recapped many experiments that involved, well, rats in mazes. His goal? To figure out the exact mental processes used in determining and recalling the routes we take in our everyday getting about. In effect, Tolman wedded cognitive psychology with the immediate world around us.

When we walk, we’re also doing some fairly amazing things, although we do them so intuitively it doesn’t seem notable. We’re creating new cognitive maps. And we’re following old ones.

Cognitive mapping might be most simply defined as “knowing where things are, even when you can’t see them.” When you leave the house, you know how to get several blocks to the store to buy milk, whether by car or by foot. You can envision the store and the route in your mind. When you get there, you know where the milk is shelved in the cooler cases even before you walk in the door. These simple acts have long been the fodder for debate among cognitive psychologists: Do we know these routes because we remember individual turns in sequence? Or are we following a broader, more comprehensive map in our minds? Or is it some combination of the two?

Tolman’s study (which is freakishly well-written and provides evidence that academic research and humor need not be fatal to one another) takes a long look at what he calls our “central office” (that is, our brain) and finds elements of both “a map control room” and “an old-fashioned telephone exchange.”

The “telephone exchange” way of wayfinding is essentially the “individual turns in sequence” approach, connecting one point with another then another. This might best be summed up in a Star Trek comic strip from the 1980s. It depicted the crew of the Starship Enterprise following Spock as he led them out of a complicated maze. When someone expressed astonishment at the ease with which they found their way out, Spock shrugged it off, replying: “When we were headed here before, I observed 128 turns, some left, some right… a simple binary code.” (Thanks to Michael Hill for mentioning this in his book Walking, Crossing Streets, and Choosing Pedestrian Routes.)

Following a simple binary code is sometimes referred to as “strip mapping” — tracking a linear route of sequential turns that link points and eventually creates a route. This is in contrast to a more comprehensive “network map,” which includes these points and routes, but also presumptive linkages between previously unconnected routes.

We use both types of mental maps depending on the situation. We might follow a mental strip map when attending a conference at a large hotel, allowing us to get from our guest room to the downstairs meeting rooms quickly and repeatedly, without cluttering our minds with thoughts about what lies downs this hallway or that.

But we’re likely to craft a more sophisticated and comprehensive mental map of the space between our home and the convenience store six blocks away. We might stop by when driving home from work, or walk a roundabout route on a sunny day, or bike a direct line that incorporates an alley or two. We compile an inventory of routes in our heads, and from this we can create new routes within this complex network.

Back to the rats: Imagine a simple, cross-shaped maze with four arms intersecting in the middle. A rat is released at the six o’clock position, and through trial and error, finds food at three o’clock. This is repeated time and again until the rat has been trained to make a beeline to the food via a single right turn. Now, we mess with the rat’s head by releasing it at the twelve o’clock position. What happens? The “telephone exchange” approach would predict the rat would instinctively make a right turn and end up at 9 o’clock. In fact, a well-trained and unstressed rat quickly orients itself and knows to makes a single left turn to find its way directly to the food at three o’clock.

But not always. Tolman found that rats didn’t employ only one strategy in wayfinding, but changed things up depending on their mental state and circumstances.

Based on his observations of rats in more complex mazes, Tolman believed that rats followed undeviating routes on mental strip-maps when they were “over motivated” — that is, too greedy or too hungry — or when they faced too many frustrating obstacles in reaching their goals. Only when less anxious did they draw on their network maps.

While Tolman was quick to aver that he was a rat psychologist and not a human one, that didn’t stop him from making some provocative links between rats in a maze and humans outside it.

To wit: He speculated that frustrated people often operated off strip maps, which restricted their ability to find solutions. He gave the example of poor Southern whites “who take it out on the Negroes, [and] are displacing their aggressions from the landlords, the southern economic system, the northern capitalists” or others. (Remember, he was writing in 1948.) He suspected it was because they were underfed and frustrated, and didn’t have the luxury of considering other reasons for (or solutions to) their discontent.

“We dare not let ourselves or others become so over-emotional, so hungry, so ill-clad, so over-motivated that only narrow strip-maps will be developed,” he wrote. “We must, in short, subject our children and ourselves (as the kindly experimenter would his rats) to the optimal conditions of moderate motivation and of an absence of unnecessary frustrations, whenever we put them and ourselves before that great God-given maze which is our human world.”

It’s been six decades since he wrote that, but it seems many of us are now living in a suburban world where we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to navigate our cars through mazes devised by traffic engineers and parking lot developers. Think of the vexing frontage roads and No Left Turn intersections and shopping mall parking lots with ramparts of little shrubberies and hidden curbs that force one to backtrack and hunt for another route to the exit. (Is there a place more aggravating to drive than around an unfamiliar mall? I don’t think so.) Place this in the context of widening economic inequality (think: hunger), and it’s no wonder that those in suburbia tend to use strip maps to get where they’re going.

When cars became more democratic, they bestowed upon us a fleeting sense of freedom — of being able to go wherever and whenever we wanted, unshackled from trolley and train schedules. But they’ve since over-proliferated and fouled their own nest. Today, walkers in a city have a far greater sense of freedom, of being able to travel freely in any direction at any time, using varied routes at will. More comprehensive cognitive maps are drawn.

When we think in strip maps, we tend to ignore other options and solutions, and, according to Tolman, and stick to one route, piling our frustration and anger on the wrong people when it doesn’t work out. When our minds develop maps with more varied routes, we see more alternatives, and tend to be less absolute and rigid in our thinking.

The general rap on Republicans in Congress (and beyond) is that they believe one route leads to all solutions (reduce taxes!), and their followers blame the wrong people for their woes (what’s the matter with Kansas?)

Far be it from me to say that if we all got out and walked more, we’d develop more comprehensive maps of where we lived. And maybe we’d open up some neural networks that would allow us to create more varied and subtle solutions to problems, which would steer us away from blaming the wrong people. Maybe Congress would run more smoothly, and the rancor of our political debates would diminish.

And maybe — just maybe — all the rats would finally find their way out of the frustrating maze.

Just saying. • 15 March 2013

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails. He's currently working on a book about the history of walking in America. Find him at his website or follow him @waynecurtis.

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A rat in a maze
Representing the futility of existence
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