Loss of landmarks and the impact of this on our sense of self

Landmarks are important in our lives as we find our way around using them.

Often, when we know an area very well, we do not have to think about which corner to turn because the landmarks are so strongly in our memory banks.  We know where we are and feel secure because of that. Yet here in Christchurch, especially in the CBD, landmarks have disappeared as the demolition continues. With more than 900 buildings already down or destined for demolition, the face of Christchurch bears little resemblance to what it did a year ago. Only twenty per cent of the CBD is likely to be left standing.

Driving up Madras Street when it was reopened made me think about what the psychological impact of losing landmarks might be as I had times of being really disoriented and “ lost” as so many buildings no longer existed. That is also coupled with grief of those buildings being destroyed which was difficult to separate out as I drove through the area where the CTV building used to exist and I had previously worked in. But I want to focus on the importance of landmarks as their loss impacts on our security and stability and which has an impact on our sense of self. William James includes spatiality in his main characteristics of a sense of self ( James, W 1890 Principles of Psychology. New York. Hoult)

In cognitive psychology and neuroscience, spatial memory is the part of memory that relates to recording information about one’s environment and its spatial orientation. We use spatial memory in order to navigate around a familiar city, just as a rat develops spatial memory to learn the location of food at the end of a maze. It is often argued that in both humans and animals, spatial memories are summarized as a cognitive map. Spatial memory has representations within working, short-term and long-term memory. Research indicates that there are specific areas of the brain associated with spatial memory.

Spatial memory recall is built upon a hierarchical structure. This means that people remember the general layout of a particular space and then “cue target locations” located within that spatial set. Recollection of spatial details is a top-down procedure, which requires an individual to recall the superordinate features of a cognitive map, followed by the ordinate and subordinate features. Thus, two spatial features are prominent in navigating a path: general layout and landmark

When a toddler begins to crawl they navigate by their sense of the world’s layout and begin to develop this spatial memory. Toddlers seem to find their way using some sort of axial lines and contrasting boundaries, and develop a sense of their world that way. This continues on as the boundaries of their world increase.

There are several ways that we can be spatially oriented. Firstly, and most simply, we can be in a familiar location such as our home, where objects around us are familiar, meaning we have some personal experience or memory of interacting with them. We know the routes (paths and roads) to other familiar locations, and we know what approximate direction these routes will take us should we decide to travel them. More generally, we have some understanding of the relative position of this familiar place to other locations we know and, indeed, to many other places in the world. As we move around in the environment, particularly places that are not so familiar to us, we are rarely able to maintain this degree of orientation. We may find ourselves in new settings and be forced to rely on wayfinding cues, such as road signs or trail markings, to find our way back to known locations. Much of the time, being spatially oriented means merely that we know the right route to travel in order to get home, such as the correct sequence of turns on city streets. In this case, “knowing where you are” actually means “knowing the way,” rather than being able to pinpoint your location on a map. It rarely occurs to us on such occasions that we lack “real”spatial orientation, such as knowing the direction home or the layout of the land. Rather, we may have the illusion of being oriented, such as (incorrectly) assuming that home is “that” direction.

Research indicates that most people most of the time are much less oriented than they realize. Fortunately, this fact rarely becomes apparent to us, unless we make a wrong turn and have to regain our bearings. Even then, in most environments, there are usually sufficient wayfinding cues — or people to provide directions — to get us back on our way. Being oriented, then, lies as much in our confidence of getting “unturned around,” should the need arise, as in being able to determine the correct route. Thus, “knowing where you are” is a psychological state that may include certain perceptual experiences (recognizing scenes or landmarks), beliefs (often erroneous but unchallenged) concerning the direction and distance of known locations, knowledge of how to navigate to another location, and feelings of security and safety with respect to staying on route or being able to recover the route, if necessary.

So what is the impact for us in earthquake changed Christchurch. As Kaila Colbin wrote in The Press, Christchurch on 29/08/12 “Our shortcuts are gone. Our local cafes and pubs are, by and large flattened. Our offices are in different places. Our roads are rollercoasters. And our landmarks have disappeared. All of our routines have been upended and suddaenly the luxury of autopilot has been lost to us……. There is a continuing impact where the earthquake still dominates our daily experience, and no, we can’t just get over it and move on…”

And it is not over yet. Landmarks are still coming down and so quickly that a block can become unrecognizable in a few weeks. It is not limited to the CBD as suburbs have changed – losing houses, shops, buildings that were particular to that suburb’s character. Now it seems likely that Christchurch will lose many schools and again a landmark that was part of many families life will disappear.

Losing our landmarks and our spatial orientation diminishes our sense of self. It takes us extra energy to keep inputting new data into our spatial memory, and our sense of ourselves within this feels less secure, less “known”. For many people affected adversely by the anxiety of the earthquakes this can combine and contribute in some measure to the sense of being overwhelmed, or at least noticeably “not their usual self”. This continues to impact on individuals until the new spatial orientation can be created and this takes considerable time to be “laid down”. We need time to adjust to the “new normal”.

If you are affected by the loss of landmarks due to the earthquakes and struggling in our city it may be helpful to access the free counselling that is available and that practitioners at Talking Therapy can provide. Counselling or therapy is useful to explore the impact of the recent earthquakes and enable you to make sense of the changes and develop strategies to cope with them.

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