On Monday I was riding my cycle into work from Haggerston in east London. The route is normally straightforward, if a bit bumpy. Most of the roads and bus lanes are ‘lightly maintained’ at best, and completely unmaintained at worst (the stretch along Old Street going west out of the Old Street roundabout. Worst street to cycle on in London).
Here is the normal end of my route, continuing from Farringdon through to Covent Garden:
This was not my route on Monday. I was rerouted after crossing the train tracks at Farringdon. Clerkenwell Road had been shut due to an earlier shop fire. I got lost and traveled far out of my way to get to work instead.
Things went bad immediately. I didn’t realise that the street I had turned onto was actually more curved than I had thought, and so, when trying to get around the emergency workers, I went too far, and then thought when I made my right on Grays Inn Road that I was turning back on Clerkenwell. From there I realised my mistake and went west until I hit Grower Street, a road I ride on regularly.
Why did I get so lost so quickly? Stress was one reason. I wasn’t expecting the detour, and it was my first cycle after two-and-a-half weeks of vacation. I was also following others hoping they knew the streets around the main street better than I did. But the main reason was that I only know the streets of the route I take to work, and not the streets that surround the route. My mental map of London in between my neighborhood and central London is mostly blank space. The places I know and the friends I’ve seen in between the east and the center exist as their own unconnected islands of familiar geography, separate from my greater mental image of the place that I live in. When I consider my own mental maps and geographies I am reminded of the sensory homunculus.
The sensory homunculus represents the amount of our brains used by nerves from different parts of our bodies. The size of the homunculus’s body parts correspond to the amount of our brain is used. Hands use the largest percentage of our brains, so in the sensory homunculus they are the biggest part of it’s body.
I wanted to make my own mental tabulus so I decided to draw one.
It’s ok, but not great. I wasn’t really confident to draw any streets outside of the places I know / live in, and I totally missed a lot of places, except for their direction (Kew Gardens is on the other side of the river, for example). I also missed out on some places near me, like Stratford and Stoke Newington.
What’s the point of this? Just to have a bit of reflection on what we think we know, vs. what we know, and how we imagine ourselves (“I’m a normally proportioned human”, “I live in London”) vs. how we actually are (“My hands are the gateway to my soul”, “I live in Haggerston, and I know Haggerston, shaky on Covent Garden, don’t know the City…”). And all you need to do to realize you don’t really know as much as you thought you did is to get rerouted.