A sense of place on steroids

A sense of place and a memory for scenes are aspects of thinking that have always had an unusual prominence in my thoughts. I have types of synaesthesia which appear to be caused by brain connections that link thinking about concepts with visual memories of places, and other brain connections linking learned motor skills involving the hands with visual memories of places. Some of my synaesthete relatives and I experience an involuntary form of the “method of loci” memorization method in which memories of information read or heard on the radio become linked with visual memories of the exact locations where we were when these pieces of information were learned. Revisiting these exact locations will automatically retrieve explicit memories of the information that was learned at that place, even years later. Some cognitive peculiarity involving a sense of place also appears to be involved in a thing that I have noticed when I drive a vehicle or go walking. The experience of seeing a changing vista or sensing a changing geographical location as I travel through space when I am driving or going for a walk out doors appears to free up my thoughts, and there is no place or time in which I have as many novel ideas and insights. Something inside the mind appears to be a reflection of the changing landscape. There is movement and action. Connections are seen and made when travelling that simply don’t happen when I am settled. I am sure that at least some of my experiences involving a sense of place are unusual.

I have been trying to find a sensible scientific explanation for the strange phenomenon which I described in the first post in this blog. I believe the strange phenomenon is a most unusual hybrid of face recognition and synaesthesia. I believe that gaining an understanding of why and how scenes and places are a recurrent theme in my mental life will be an essential part of finding an explanation for the strange phenomenon, because both types of cognitive processes appear to take place in the same part of the brain. Apparently recognizing faces and a memory for scenes both are functions of a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus.

I believe the strange phenomenon is an example of an unconscious mental process breaking through into conscious awareness. I believe the scientific term for this is a “threshold phenomenon”. In addition to the strange phenomenon I have also experienced an odd but subtle feeling associated with seeing John’s face. It’s hard to describe, something like mild wonderment or an inexplicable type of familiarity that seems to suggest that one is looking at a mystery that could be solved, if only one was able to understand what that mystery is. I’d be thinking “What is it about this man’s face? What is it about this bloke?” I believe this odd feeling is the result of some cognitive process that happens below the level of conscious awareness nudging that threshold.

I can only think of one other time when I’ve had that same feeling of looking at a mystery that is itself a mystery to me. As you might expect, this feeling was evoked by viewing scenes of a place. An entire suburb used to give me the same type of “mystery” feeling that John’s face has evoked. When I looked at scenes of this suburb I felt that there was something interesting about the place but I did not consciously understand what it was. I would gaze at vistas and wonder “What is it about this place? What am I looking at here?” I noticed the suburb’s soil and the rocks. I noted the limited amount of information available about the geography, native plants and history of the local area. I looked at the lay of the land, and I noticed that instead of hills like those found in some surrounding suburbs (built on stabilized sand dunes), this place was the shape of two oval shaped shallow bowls, one twice the size of the other. I thought about the names of the streets. Did they have any significance? The few old trees left by developers were in situations that reminded me of sinkholes and cave entrances. I enquired and found that they were tuart trees. I had read that tuarts are associated with caves. I knew that caves were common in this area, and I enjoy finding caves in bushland (but I don’t enjoy the bush ticks that I find later). It didn’t take me long to spot small sinkholes in remnant bushland in an elevated part of this suburb. I read about a controversy about land developers destroying a beautiful cave while developing land in the same general geological region as this suburb. My husband chatted once with a man in the real estate business, who said that the land developer which developed this residential area from bushland made no money from the project, which seems odd to me.

I felt there must be a cave at the centre of the mystery that I sensed but did not understand. The penny finally dropped while I was reading an interpretive sign during a bushwalk. The gorge I was walking through had not been created from the erosion of rocks from a river or a creek as is often the case with gorges (I had been wondering where the water course was). The sign informed me that I was walking through a large collapsed cave. I later found out that the nearby large lake was also thought to have possibly been formed from a collapsed cave. I was happy with this explanation as a solution to my sense of mystery, but I’ve never found official confirmation that this suburb was once collapsed caves. I no longer have that funny feeling of a mystery nagging me to solve it when I view this suburb.

Maybe you are thinking this is a story of little consequence, but try to imagine this same story played out in the time of our pre-civilization ancestors. The genetics that gives rise to human capabilities such as recognizing and understanding scenes and faces are genetics that evolved a very long time ago when humans were still living off the land. This was a time when lakes would have been useful for drinking water and aquatic foods, and caves would have been useful as shelter, protection and sacred places. What would a giant collapsed cave have meant to our ancient ancestors? It would have provided not just one but probably a ring of caves in the elevated rocky rim that open at the side. Such caves could possibly be walked into or climbed up into and might also be in elevated positions, making them accessible but also defendable. Excellent views would be another desirable feature of these places of residence. A pond might be found in the centre of this ring of caves, and perhaps animals could be trapped using the naturally enclosed geography of this place. I think the suburb which looks like a pair of collapsed caves might have been a more valuable bit of real estate in the Paleolithic Age than it is today.

The era of our prehistoric ancestors was a time when a memory for scenes and routes and landmarks would have been essential in a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life. It is not an exaggeration to assert that one of the types of ability that seem to have an unusual prominence in my mind, an ability to remember scenes, would have been not only very useful to our distant ancestors, but would most likely have been an essential element of the mental toolkit for every member of the tribe. Perhaps I am some type of genetic atavism. I don’t mind that idea – our immediate hominid ancestors actually had much larger brains than modern humans.

An instinctive awareness of my geological and geographical surroundings gave me a vague feeling of curiosity during one period of my adult life, but it was not that big a deal. It was a niggling feeling, not an obsession, but there once was a time when my interest in the natural environment could have been described as an obsession. When I was a girl my family lived in a coastal suburb, and when I look back at my childhood my fascination with the sea and swimming overshadows just about everything else, but that is another story for another day….

Method of Loci at Wikipedia

Wikipedia contributors Method of loci. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Method_of_loci&oldid=413248520

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