Show me the way to go home

Dr Vernon Coleman

Every year thousands of birds who are only a few months old manage to fly hundreds of miles in order to spend the winter in a warmer country. They fly without maps and without any artificial navigational aids. They fly across the oceans where there are no landmarks. And yet they invariably reach their destinations safely. Then, as the seasons change once more, they fly all the way back again. Similarly, newspapers often contain stories about family pets which have got lost but which have, nevertheless, managed to travel long distances in order to find their way back home.

No one seems to know precisely how birds and animals manage to navigate so accurately, but most scientists now argue that birds use some sort of inbuilt compass to help them follow the earth’s magnetic fields.

Since creatures which most of us regard as less intelligent than ourselves seem to be able to navigate very well without instruments, might we assume that, although most of us have lost the knack, we too have some sort of inbuilt system which is designed to help us find our way around the world?

The evidence suggests so. Most dramatic of all was the work done by a British researcher. Working with students whom he blindfolded, Dr Robin Baker of Manchester showed not only that they were able to point their way back to their starting point, even when they had been taken on a confusing and deliberately circuitous route, but that they were unable to do this if they had a magnetic-field-inducing coil on their head.

Not that this startling experiment would have been much of a surprise for one of the world’s greatest explorers. Captain Cook, the famous British sea captain and explorer, took a Polynesian with him on at least one of his journeys: according to Cook the man could always point accurately towards his own home island without any obvious external aids.

Here, it seems, is yet another skill most of us are unaware of and rarely, if ever, use.

Taken from Bodypower by Vernon Coleman

Copyright December 2021

`Bodypower’ is available as a paperback and an eBook.