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Toponymy and Place Names

There’s another topo- word, toponymy, which means the study of place names, their origins and history. It’s an arcane field that has been given almost no attention by those geographers (including me), psychologists, architects and philosophers who have written about place and spirit of place. This is a bit surprising because place attachment, roots, dwelling, attachment, openess, thrown-togetherness, boundaries and sense of place all involve particular places with their own names, and none of those theoretical discussions have much substance except in the context of experiences of particular places.


Solina is a hamlet in Central Ontario in Canada. I have been unable to find the origin of the name.

Deroy and Mulon suggest in the preface to their 1992 Dictionnaire de Noms de Lieux that the proper names of places are like money (dollar bills and euros and so) because they are used with no more attention to them than their everyday utility. They serve as a sort of geographical shorthand that helps us find our way around the world and is indispensable to communication because they obviate the need for cumbersome descriptions (such as “the cupboard under the stairs” – a description that by its very lack of a proper name conveyed that Harry Potter didn’t really belong on Privet Drive). Place names are so taken for granted that their importance as symbols of particularlity is largely overlooked by those who want to contemplate place at a more abstract level. [I intend to write about particularity in a future post.]


A bench in a small square just inside the medieval town gate at Chepstow.

Traditional Toponymy
The traditional approach of toponymists who study place names, has, it has been suggested by Reuben Rose-Redwood, “been characterized by political innocence.” They mostly dig into etymology, archives and local histories to unravel what names mean, but don’t consider the processes behind the naming. In fact, many Anglo-European place names probably don’t have much of a story to tell, and simply arose as descriptions that made sense for local inhabitants. These give individuality to somewhere yet can also have broader connotations, and the spelling may have shifted over the centures. Chepstow, one of the towns I regularly visited as a child, is a straightforward combination of the Old English cheap, meaning market, and stow, meaning place. There are countless places in Britain with names that have generic elements such as these. A simple guide to generic elements in British place names, such as -stow and -ton and coombe can be found here.

Some place names do summarise narratives, though it is not always clear what these are. Corstorphine in Edinburgh is said by some to derive from croix d’or fin and is where Mary Queen of Scots is said to have lost a gold cross. Alternatively it could mean Torfin’s Crossing because the earliest recorded use is Crostorfin in 1178. Nevertheless, where place names embed history toponymists can reveal obscure origins that can be of great value to historians, archaeologists and even in support of environmental protection. Gwaun Henllan in Carmarthen is the oldest recorded field name in Wales, first noted in the 8th century. When it was threatened with open pit mining the place name history proved to be critical in the prevention of the mining.

For cultures other than Angle-European ones, place names can serve as ways not only of remembering geography but also as means of reinforcing traditions and cultural memories. When the anthropologist Basso asked an Apache native American “What is wisdom?” the answer was: “Wisdom sits in places.” For the Apache the names of places have stories associated with them that are used to teach others and to convey correct behavior (Feld and Basso, p56). Basso calls this “the ethnography of lived topographies.”

Classifying and Standardizing Place Names
It is possible to see similarities in names and to classify them. Randall suggests the following categories:

  • commendatory (Pennsylvania for William Penn, or Victoria)
  • descriptive (Mont Blanc, Fisherman’s Terminal)
  • commemorative (Victoria)
  • possessive (Tom’s Place, Hank’s Place)
  • associative (New York and New York State)
  • incident or activity (Coal Harbour, or Corstorphine)
  • manufactured (Disneyworld)
  • folk-etymological (Seattle from Chief Si’ahl
  • political (Great Britain, United States

Tom'sPlaceweb  PeterleeisPlacetoBe1975web

Tom’s Place is a store in Kensington Market in Toronto, 2012, where Tom is a long-time resident and store owner. I took the Peterlee is the Place to Be sign on the side of a London bus in 1975 (you probably have to click to enlarge it to read the sign). Peterlee is a New Town in County Durham, founded in 1948 and named for Peter Lee who promoted a better life for the inhabitants of depressed mining villages in Durham.

Toponymy involves more than classification and digging into etymological origins. It also plays an essential role in ensuring consistency in spelling and usage, something that is overseen in most political jurisdictions by formally constituted boards or committees. For instance the UK has a Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. The US Board on Geographic Names is Federal board created in 1890, and Canada established a Geographical Names Board in 1897. It is interesting to note that the late 19th century was also when standardized time zones were created (before then towns had their own times, which made it difficult to coordinate train timetables and so on), so the regulation of place names seems to have been part of broader trend to government imposed standardization.


Most towns and cities have place signs at their borders. This is at Toronto’s northern boundary on Yonge Street.

Critical Toponymy, Colonisation and Commodification
Since the turn of this century toponymy has moved beyond etymological and taxonomic research to consider the politics involved in place naming. It has always been the case that a colonizing or imperial expansion has involved displacement of local names with new ones imposed by the conquerors. In the European expansions of the 18th and 19th century this was done partly to demonstrate authority and partly to honour those involved in the act of colonization by using names of the colonisers or the monarchs and aristocrats who supported them – Georgia, Victoria, Alberta, Sydney, Melbourne, Halifax, and so on in British colonies. Imported place names also provided a measure of familiarity for new settlers. Scarborough, which is now the eastern suburb of Toronto, was named by Elizabeth, the wife of the first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, because the cliffs along the lakefront reminded her of Scarborough in Yorkshire. What is now Toronto was named York at its founding in 1793, officially in honour of the Duke of York, son of George III (the same Grand Old Duke of York who marched his men to the top of the hill and marched them down again) but I suspect homesickness for a familiar bit of England had something to do with it.

The name was changed to Toronto in 1832 apparently because of confusion caused by having too many places called York, but York lingers on in the names of other municipalities and a university. Toronto is an indigenous place name that means something “trees standing in water” that described a weir on a lake about 90 kilometres north of the present day city. Eighteenth century fur traders used it to refer to the lake, and then to describe a portage to rivers flowing into Lake Ontario, and then for a trading fort near the current city. There was no First Nations settlement on the site of York when the British arrived, but Fort Toronto had been close by so it was the closest thing to a local place name that could be adopted.

The rewriting of place names is, as one toponymist has said, an uneven process. When it is done in the deliberate way of Simcoe it is often part of a process of claiming territory and making clear who the new owners are. But even when the naming is well-intentioned, the process can still be contested. Alderman and Inwood have written, for example, about how the renaming of streets Martin Luther King Way was often done without consulting local Black American communities, some of whom therefore felt further marginalized by a process that was intended to be inclusive.


Snidcel – a place on Vancouver Island that has regained its First Nation’s name.

In some small ways place name injustices in North America and elsewhere are being undone as features and places once named for Europeans are winning back their indigenous names. What was previously called Mount McKinley in Alaska, named for a US President and the tallest mountain in North America, has in 2015 been renamed Denali, the locally used indigenous name. In an announcement about the change the US Secretary of the Interior declared: “With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”




Reuben Rose-Redwood suggests that an increasingly important concern for critical toponymists is the commercialization of place names. This is more than a matter of developers finding names for new projects that will be attractive to prospective investors and home-buyers. Corporate developers now often have streets in major projects named for themselves, and sports stadiums (Etihad Stadium for Manchester City, Rogers Centre in Toronto for the Blue Jays) named for the major sponsor, and when the sponsor changes the stadium name can change. The names of metro rail stations in Dubai were sold to corporate sponsors as a form of advertising for them and revenue generation for the transit authority. It seems that toponymic commodification and place branding are merging. My favourite example is the conflation of Montreal with Coca Cola that happened for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1992. I understand that this is the only time that Coca Cola’s distinctive calligraphy has been used for other purposes. I hope it is the only time a city allows itself to merge with a corporation and a commodity.

– Derek Alderwood and Joshua Inwood, 2013, Street Naming and the Politics of Belonging: Spatial Injustices in the toponymic commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr, Social and Cultural Geography
L. Deroy, et M Mulon, 1992 Dictionnaire de Noms de Lieux, (Paris: Les Usuels)
– S. Feld. and K.H. Basso  (eds) 1996 Senses of Place (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press)
– Richard Randall, 2001 Place Names: how they define the world – and more (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press)
– Reuben Rose Redwood, 2011, Rethinking the Agenda of Political Toponymy, Acme
– Edward Relph 2014 Toronto: Transformations in a City and its Region, University of Pennsylvania Press) [where I discuss the erratic origins of the name of Toronto]
S. Taylor  (ed) 1998 The Uses of Place Names (Edinburgh: Scottish Cultural Press) [Corstorphine and Gwaun Henllan]



A Dread of Certain Places and other Negative Responses to Place
Topophobia is defined in the OED as a morbid dread of certain places. From a medical perspective it is regarded as an anxiety disorder. I have no idea how common this is, but apparently  in extreme cases it can warrant psychiatric treatment.

My understanding is that has a much broader meaning than this. I first wrote about it in 1976 (in an obscure discussion paper: “The phenomenological foundations of geography,” University of Toronto, Department of Geography, Discussion Paper No 21, 1976; available at, in which I suggested that the components of topophilia, such as environments of persistent appeal, the pleasure gained from direct encounters with nature, or knowing places through good health and health and familiarity, all have a topophobic equivalent. Topophilia involves positive affective bonds between human beings and environments; topophobia refers to the dislike or fear of places, and includes all the negative emotional responses people have to spaces, places, and landscapes that they find distasteful or frightening. Think of Mirkwood in The Lord of the Rings. To put it succinctly, topophilia is about pleasant experiences of places, and topophobia is about the nasty experiences.


An army base near Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala in 1998, shortly after the end of a civil war in which the army had razed entire villages. The cute sentry post belies the deep topophobia inherent both in those actions and in the reactions of survivors to this particular place fragment.

Diverse Manifestations of Topophobia
Most negative language about place – for instance placelessness, non-places, dislocation, uprooting, dystopia, displacement, delocalization, disembedding – has to do with processes that have suppressed or undermined positive place experiences. Some of these are primarily about loss of topophilia, but others involve topophobia because a once pleasant place has become abhorrent. This was the case with uprooting during the Dust Bowl, or the “landscapes of death” in north-east Brazil described by Josue de Castro in his book Death in the North-East, (Random House, 1966).

But topophobia has to do with more than loss of place. In my 1976 essay I cited an article about the coal-mining districts of Appalachia, a region where it had been estimated that 50% of the population suffered from depression, compared to about 4% in the United States. A local doctor explained: “I feel depressed here myself just from the ways things look. That includes the roads, housing, everything.” (C. McCarthy, “Whose Who in Appalachia” Atlantic Monthly, July 1976). Something similar could probably be said about the impoverished settlements on reserves of aboriginal peoples in northern Canada, about ghettoes of social housing in high rise apartments, about the devastated cities of Syria. In such cases the ugliness of the place itself, the everyday challenges of surviving there, and the depression and anxiety of inhabitants, seem to reinforce one another in a vicious cycle.


A B movie with the name of the song. A good movie with the same theme is The Last Picture Show, with Jeff Bridges and Cloris Leachman, 1971.

Many experiences of places are far from agreeable, for reasons that have to do with our moods, environmental events, or the character of the setting. If you happen to be depressed or upset for some reason, landscapes will not appear cheerful. Experiences of the natural environment, so often benign and pleasant, can be filled with anxiety and even panic as the weather worsens, tornado warnings sound, a brush fire approaches, the drought intensifies, the earthquake happens. In cities we avoid urban neighbourhoods that are dangerous because they are gang territories, or simply because they are unfamiliar and seem threatening. An isolated place, caught in drudgery, far from the centres of fashion, lacking any sense of possible change or opportunities for personal growth, is stultifying for most young people. The places of childhood and home are rejected as intolerable burdens; the priority is to get away. This sentiment was captured perfectly in the song”We Gotta Get out of this Place” by Eric Burdon and The Animals, released in 1965. It is a theme in numerous movies and novels.

Topophobia can be aesthetic, such as a dislike of modernist buildings or graffiti. It can opinionated and intellectual, for instance in the attitude that stands behind condemnations of urban sprawl and suburbs. It can be physiological; a former student of mine suffered migraines whenever she went into an enclosed shopping mall. Or ideological; one of my uncles refused to go into the great country houses of England because he considered them manifestations of decadence and oppression. The forms of topophobia are no less diverse than those of topophilia, though academics and artists pay much less attention to them.

Paradoxical Topophobia
Because topophobia, like topophilia, is associated both with the personality of places and with our attitudes, our experiences can switch from topophilic to topophobic, and vice versa, as our moods change and as the place itself changes. The desire of those young people who got out of the places where they grew up – the small towns and farms and slums is often transformed later in life into nostalgia about them.


This poster with a paradoxical topophobic/topophilic quote from Henry James about London, is in the London Museum.

Indeed it seems to be possible, if somewhat paradoxical, that in some circumstances positive and negative reactions to a place can be held almost simultaneously. Beatriz Munoz-Gonzalez has a paper titled “Topophilia and Topophobia: The Home as an Evocative Place of Contradictory Emotions” (Space and Culture, May 2005), in which she considers how home in south-west Spain is place of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction, somewhere for belonging and creation, yet also a prison and place of conflict. The very term “domestic violence” captures this contradiction succinctly. (I expect to explore this contradiction more when I write a post about “Home and Place.”)


The cover of the publication Topophobia that describes LondonTopophobia’s performance events.

Knowing more about topophobia as a means of avoiding where we don’t want to be.
A group of musicians, dancers and electronic artists organizing performance events in London has adopted the name “LondonTopophobia.” They use trepidation and confusion about places to raise the existential question of how we find our place in the world. If I understand their intention correctly, their aim is to convey the idea that we end up where we are in part by avoiding where we don’t want to be.related publication on Topophobia and the fear of place in contemporary art describes some of these performance events, which include making a video that treats an urban wasteland as a spectacle, a “filmic pan” of the aftermath of a car accident, a depiction by a Finnish/Sami artist of her sense of being out of place, and an imaginary journey in virtual space.

To my knowledge there has been no study of topophobia that is an equivalent to Tuan’s account of topophilia. In some respects this is not altogether surprising because most people writing about place, or painting and photographing places, have chosen to illustrate their nice qualities, and place is treated as an aspect of belonging and a source of pleasure. Topophobia is about the dark side of environmental experience, and because it is, like topophilia, not the strongest of human emotions it is quite easily pushed aside, avoided or ignored, so that we can turn our attention to nicer experiences. Nevertheless, I think it would be very helpful to know more about why we avoid where we don’t want to be.

Finally, a Google search turned up two images of Topophobia, the one on the left to illustrate a show of works of the LondonTopophobia group, the more compelling one on the right from a website called Polyvore, which seems to be about fashion or something I cannot quite grasp.

Topophobia---Image             Topophobia-polyvoreweb


Topophilia and Topophils


The cover of my tattered, well-used 1974 edition of Yi-fu Tuan’s Topophilia.

The Various Inventions of Topophilia
The word topophilia, which literally means love of place, was popularized by Yi-fu Tuan, a human geographer in his book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values, published in 1974. He apparently thought he had coined the word because he refers to it as a neologism that includes all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment” (p.93). I’ll discuss that book in a moment, but there were a couple of prior and significant, albeit brief, uses of the word.

The first use seems to have been by the poet W.H. Auden when he wrote in 1947 in his introduction for Slick but not Streamlined, a book by the English poet John Betjeman, that he hoped it “will inspire American topophils to take poetry seriously and American poets to take topophilia seriously.” The places Betjeman loved and wrote poems about were mostly the interwar suburbs of England.

So tophophils are lovers of place, and I suppose I must also be sort of intellectual “topophil” because I have devoted so much energy to writing about place.

A few years later Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist, gave topophilia a slightly different and methodological meaning in The Poetics of Space. He used it to refer to his investigations of poetic images of “felicitous space” that “seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space that we love” (p.xxxi). It is unclear whether Bachelard had borrowed the word from Auden or coined it for himself. Whatever is the case, the word appears to be an invention of the late-twentieth century, though the sentiments it encompasses are presumably as old as humanity.

Tuan’s Topophilia
For Tuan, who refers neither to Auden nor Bachelard, topophilia is “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (p.4). It is, he wrote, “not the strongest of human emotions” (p.93). And it varies greatly in emotional range and intensity, including fleeting visual pleasure, the sensual delight of physical contact, the fondness for familiar places such as home, and joy because of health and vitality (p.247). But for all that, it strikes a chord. It is a familiar sentiment, a word that encapsulates the pleasantly varied relationships we have with particular bits of the world both as individuals and as participants in cultures with long histories.

Tuan’s book is more about –philia than about topo-, more about environmental attitudes and perceptions, as the subtitle indicates, than about the characteristics of places that contribute to those perceptions, although he is well aware that topophilia is a two-way relationship between humans and environments. The word place appears neither in the index, nor in any of the chapter titles or section headings. And in fact only two of the chapters discuss topophilia in depth (one on topophilia and environment, the other, shorter one on environment and topophilia).


A diagram from the chapter on topophilia and environment in Tuan’s book that indicates his interest in all types of places – urban, rural and wilderness.

What is remarkable about Tuan’s approach is, first, that it broke from contemporary studies of environmental perception, which mostly involved the use of psychological methods, and offered an interpretation of environmental experience from the broad perspective of a humanist scholar and geographer who wove together ideas drawn from poets, classical Greece, art critics, anthropologists, cosmology, garden cities, New York, the Middle Ages, suburbs and skid row. And secondly, it is a wonderful account of the complexity of sense of place and the diverse aspects of place experience that is elliptical and indirect. It encircles place, which is always at the centre yet is scarcely mentioned.

As soon as we become aware of topophilia, its importance becomes obvious, It is apparent in many forms of experience outdoors – skiing, hiking, sitting in the sun, we experience it when we travel to attractive places, whether resorts or historic towns, it stands behind the attempts of architects and planners to create aesthetically pleasant designs and compatible settings for people to work and live; it is demonstrated in the attention home-owners give to gardens in their front-yards, which are both for their own pleasure and the pleasure of those who pass-by; it is reinforced in community festivals and parades. It is involved, in fact, whenever somewhere gives us pleasure, and whenever our moods enable us to take pleasure from those places, regardless of whether they are primarily human constructions or natural or a blend of both. Topophilia can be comfortable and subdued, or ecstatic. Its importance is known to anybody who bothers to attend to the world around them.

The Diversity of Approaches to Topophilia Now
Tuan’s Topophilia has been widely referenced and very influential in human geography and other environmental disciplines. It has been reprinted at least twice. But like any incisive idea it has taken on a life of its own. For example, a 2005 paper titled “Topophilia and Quality of Life: Ultimate Restorative Environments”, by Oladele Ogunseitan and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, defines topophilia as an abstract psychological construct whose meaning can only be observed indirectly through its effect on measurable responses. Several hundred individuals on the Irvine campus of the University of California were asked about topophilia and their quality of life (using a standard WHO quality of life survey), and their answers submitted to various statistical techniques that generated four domains of topophilia – ecodiversity, synthetic settings (which blend natural and built elements), environmental familiarity, and cognitive challenges. This sort of approach Tuan selfconsciously avoided because he wrote simply in the introduction to Topophilia that “Research methods are not presented” for the reason that such methods miss the crucial problems.


A diagram from Ogunseitan’s paper indicating the relationship of topophilia to quality of life and the statistical strength of the four domains of topophilia.

A Google search in fall 2015 indicated that topophilia, is currently experiencing a diverse resurgence of interest. For instance:

  • the “topophilia hypothesis,” understood as something to do human affiliation with the natural world, has become a minor research theme in the subdiscipline of ecopsychology and linked with the “biophilia hypothesis.”
  • In May 2015 Planitzen had a blog entry titled: “The difficult task of creating Topophilia: Reflections on 40 years of the Project for Public Spaces,” though there is no subsequent discussion of what this might mean.
  • “Topophilia” is the title of an avant-garde Japanese music album.
  • “Topophilia”

    “Sense of Being”, from Stephanie Dawda’s Topophilia photography project

    is the title of Stephanie Dawda’s photography project “to capture the energy of the powerful sensations humans experience from natural environments.”

  • “Studies in Topophilia” is the name of an exhibition by Carol Wenning of charcoal sketches inspired by her experiences of Portuguese landscapes and marble quarries.
  • Jeffery Hirst offers “Topophilia- A Visual Poem of muted photos that speak of specific places and relationships (I provide no link because there seems to be no way back from his site).
  • Liz Toohey-Wiese has a drawing of a snow-covered mountain top that she titled “Topophilia.”
  • A blog entry with the intriguing title “Topophilia, Tobacco and Tactical Weapons” by somebody (unidentified except for the initials jdp) from the University of Kentucky, is an account of a drive on Highway 70 east from Raleigh to the coast, which is not scenic but where he/she grew up and which “triggered fond associations with eastern North Carolina – topophilia I guess.” The blog describes tobacco farms and billboards advertising guns.

    The image used by MOMA in February 2015 to advertise Peter Bo Rappmond’s film Topophilia, about the Trans-Alaska pipeline

    More substantial than any of these is “Topophilia,” an art film by Peter Bo Rappmund, which was shown at MOMA in February 2015. This is more consistent with Tuan’s breadth of interpretation. It shows the Trans-Alaska pipeline in all its diversity from end to end, and explores the complex interactions of industrial and natural landscapes. Here’s a vimeo clip.


A bar somewhere between Minneapolis and St Paul in 1976

Topophilia, Topo-apathy and Topophobia
What I gather from all these websites is that love of place is an idea and emotion as diverse as places that are loved and liked, and the different uses of the idea of topophilia reflects some of that diversity.  Of course, not everyone is particularly interested in or loves places. When I was teaching in Minnesota in the 1970s I recall reading a mid-Western literary journal that had surveyed regional authors about their sense of place. One replied that his sense of place had to do with being in a bar with a beer in his hand – a reply that nicely pricks the assumption that place is a romantic interest for everyone. I suppose this attitude could be called topo-apathy. I suspect it is not uncommon.

And while love of place is part of our “affective ties to environments,” to quote Tuan, these ties also include antipathies to place – apprehension, dislike, revulsion, even fear of places. This is topophobia. Academically inclined topophils, such as me, are no less interested in such adverse reactions to places, and I am trying to make contact with a book edited by Xing Ruan and Paul Hogben in 2007 titled Topophilia and Topophobia: reflections on twentieth century human habitat, which includes an essay by Yi-fu Tuan .  When I can find it and have read it I will update this post.  In the meantime I will write a separate post about topophobia, something which I first considered in the 1970s.

Place Cells and Sense of Place in Neuroscience

I first learned of place cells and the work of neuroscientists to locate sense of place in the brain from an article published in the New Scientist in 2006 (John Zeisel, “A Sense of Place,” New Scientist 4 March 2006, 50-51). My initial reaction was that this was scientific reduction, taking something remarkably subtle and complex and explaining it in terms of a physiological mechanism. I became less dismissive when I discovered that this research was in part an attempt to find a underlying cause for Alzheimer’s, in which a sense of place (in the fundamental meaning of knowing where you are and how you got here) is one of the first faculties to drift away, and there is some indication that damage to place cells could be a cause. And as I have learned more I have come increasingly to think that the research of neuroscientists provides valuable insights that complement rather than undermine phenomenological thought about place.

There are growing indications that “place cells” and “grid cells” – the neurons in our brains that react to specific locations – play key roles in our experiences of places. The three key scientists involved in the discovery of these cells – John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser – were awarded the Nobel Prize in the Physiology of Medicine in 2014, and the nomination stated that: “The sense of place and the ability to navigate are some of the most fundamental brain functions. Sense of place provides a perception of the position of the body in the environment and in relation to surrounding objects.” Furthermore it is linked to experiences of distance and direction, and to memory.


Diagrams recording place cell firing and grid cell firing in respective parts of the brain. Yellow indicates no firing of an electrode, other colors fire when the animal was in a particular part of the maze. The place cell patterns are unorganized and do not correspond to actual spatial patterns. Grid cell firings have a hexagonal pattern.

Place and Grid Cells
Place cells were identified and named by O’Keefe in 1971. He connected electrodes to the hippocampi of rats moving freely around mazes, and discovered that whenever a rat was in a certain part of the maze a particular neuron fired – each place in the maze apparently had its own neuron. Hence “place cells.” There was, however, no apparent correspondence between the patterns of place cells in the brain and the spatial relationships of actual places. This puzzle was resolved thirty years later when the Mosers identified what they called “grid cells” in the entorhinal cortex (a part of the brain adjacent to the hippocampus) which, in effect, organize the relationships of distance and direction between place cells. It has been suggested that together place and grid cells construct a sort of cognitive map of the world as we experience it.


The hexagonal pattern of grid cell firing. The grey, wavy line in the background shows the movement of a freely moving rat in an experimental cage. The firing pattern of grid cells is superimposed – locations at the intersections of the grid lines generated repeated firings to create the hexagonal patterns. 

[Two related notes:
1. Other related types of neurons related to spatial experience have been identified – such as head-direction cells and border or boundary cells – which also contribute to how place memories are stored in the brain.
2.Grid cells are remarkable not only for their apparent organizational role in brain activity, but also because their firing patterns seem to take the form of a hexagonal grid, strangely reminiscent of the patterns in what in Geography is known as Central Place Theory. I have no idea what to make of this.]

Place and grid cells are in parts of the brain known to play critical roles in memory. It has been established that their functions are related not only to remembering how to get from place to place but also to episodic memories – memories related to one’s own experiences. It has also been established that there is “plasticity” in these memories of places. In other words, even if some of the characteristics of a place are changed, such as colours, or heights of walls, or lighting, the same place cell continues to respond to it.

Place and Grid Cells in Humans
How is this known to happen in humans? Individuals having brain surgery for other reasons, such as treatment for acute epilepsy, and are therefore immobilized, have agreed to participate in experiments involving virtual reality. Their brain activity has been monitored as they navigate through a virtual city where they are asked to undertake tasks at specific locations, and then to recall aspects of those locations and tasks. Firing patterns in place and grid cells are consistent with those in laboratory animals.

What does this mean for understanding place and sense of place in what might be called the geographical world of home, neighbourhood, city, other countries?

Clearly place and grid cells have to be functioning well if we are to find our way around, whether it is from the living room to the kitchen and back again, or around the cities we live in. We know this because those suffering from Alzheimer’s lose that ability and it appears this may be related to atrophy or malfunction of place and grid cells. In effect, place and grid cells hold the memories, meanings and sense of places.


The relationship between places and episodic memories captured in a sign in store window in Victoria British Columbia

More philosophically, it appears there is a complex correspondence between what I perceive and experience in the geographical world and what goes on in my brain. If I understand the neuroscience research correctly, there is in my brain a neuron which somehow stores or is related to my memories for each place I have experienced, whether my kitchen, the house my grandfather built that I lived in fifty years ago for a few years, or the view of Florence from the other side of the Arno. This is a huge amount of information and it all has to be sorted and recalled easily if we are to find our way around and talk about where we grew up and went on vacation. May-Britt and Edvard Moser and David Rowland put it this way in their Cold Spring Harbor article: “Spatial memories place high demands on capacity. Memories must be distinct to be recalled without interference and encoding must be fast…for large quantities of uncorrelated spatial information.”

Given this, I think the cognitive map metaphor is too simple, not least because it assumes that place and grid cells function mostly as recording devices of places that exist in a real world. My interpretation is that research into place and grid cells is demonstrating the remarkable complexity and flexibility of place experience in which the relationship between the geographical world and place and grid cells is dynamic and two-directional, continually changing both as things in the world change and as memories are accumulated. Place and grid cells record our experiences of places as memories, and the memories stored in those cells continually inform our experiences of places. By extension, notions of an objective world that is separate from subjective experience seem to have no neurological substance. What goes on in our brains, and what goes on in the world those brains encounter are so profoundly interconnected that to separate them has to be considered equivalent to self-imposed dementia. Phenomenologists have always suspected as much.

Some References:
A substantial recent review of work on place, grid and related cells, by the Mosers who won the Nobel Prize and David Rowland, is available at Cold Spring Harbor Perspective in Biology at:

The connection between place and grid cells and Alzheimer’s is discussed at

The following article from Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience discusses the link between place cells and episodic memory:

Brain Facts discusses the evidence of place and grid cells in humans.

Recent Insights into Mobility and Place

In the last couple of months I have read several articles that provide insights into the importance of place in the context of contemporary mobility. Some of these include survey and census information about how Americans relate to local areas and how many of them changed their place of residence in one year. This information is important because discussions about place mostly approach it in terms of particular, long-term local experiences, giving the impression that these are the norm. This may be the case for a small majority but it seems that a large minority of the population want to move elsewhere and every year several tens of millions act on this. Place experiences for them are of many places and multi-centred.

My interest was first aroused by an article in the Atlantic Monthly in March “Staying Close to Home , No Matter What,” which discusses the inclination of Americans not to move away from where they grew up. This is in fact a commentary on a recent poll in the Heartland Monitor that examined American’s experiences in their local areas, including their opinions on the local economy, businesses, and institutions.


“Place of Discovery”, a 1927 painting by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee.

The Heartland Monitor poll (undertaken by Allstate/National Journal) asked 1000 people  whether their local area is best described as a small city or town (41%), a suburb (22%), a big city (19%)  or a rural area 17%); these are not perhaps what many might consider as local areas. Nevertheless, and regardless of what sort of local area they lived in or their demographic or socio-economic group, respondents rated their local area very positively in terms of its quality of life and environment, and higher than the country in terms of political leadership. Perhaps what is of special significance from the perspective of place is that 54% of the respondents lived in the area where they had grown up  (34% had never moved away while 19% had left and returned)., and almost half of those had lived in the same area for 21 or more years.

It was these percentages that led the author of the Atlantic Monthly article to interpret the Heartland Monitor poll as indicating that Americans generally like to stay put. Well, yes, strictly speaking the sample of 1000 is sufficient to make reasonably confident extrapolations for the American population as a whole, and to suggest that just over half the US population likes stays close to home, which is to say in the same city, town or suburb.  But it is important to put numbers to this. The U.S. population is about 320 million, so 54% means that roughly 170 million want to stay in their local area. On the other hand, about 150 million do not, so it seems almost half Americans are restless, and for them moving elsewhere is almost as big an attraction as staying put.

A U.S. Census report in March 2015 “Staying or Going” gives further details about staying close to home or moving elsewhere. It concludes from various data that about 10 per cent of Americans, (specifically 10 million households or about 35 million people) are dissatisfied with where they live and would like to move because of the poor quality of their housing or their neighborhood, or concerns about local safety and inadequate public services. The report indicates that while In 2010-11 only about 2 million of those dissatisfied households actually did move, another 11 million households moved for other, presumably more positive, reasons. While there is some evidence that residential satisfaction is increasing and rates of moving are declining, nevertheless about 35 million Americans move to a new place every year. In each decade that is the equivalent of the entire population of the United States moving to some other place in the country.


Multicentred place experiences conveyed in real estate signs in a suburban area of Toronto popular with Chinese immigrants, 2013

Another U.S. Census Report in March 2015 “Packing it Up” suggests that 1 in 9 people changed residences in 2013-2014 (in 1948 it was 1 in 5, so this has declined over the last 60 years).  Of the 35 million who moved, 23 million stayed in the same county, another 6.5 million moved to a different county in the same state, 1.2 million moved to a different state, 3.4 million moved to a different part of the U.S. and 1.1 million moved abroad. While this supports the general notion the most people prefer to stay close to home (in the same county or same state), it is nonetheless the case that in a single year 6.7 million Americans made substantial moves. To put it rather differently,at the county and state level there appears to be a constant place churning as people move to other neighborhoods or cities, while at the national level the equivalent of the population of Philadelphia or Dallas moves to another state or region each year. For some people place may be an enduring source of focused experiences, but clearly for many millions of families and individuals it is what Luch Lippard in her book The Lure of the Local refers to as multi-centred.

Multi-centred place experience is also common at an international scale. The “Packing it Up” report notes than 1.1 million Americans moved abroad in 2013-14. If this is sustained it amounts to 10 million in a decade, the equivalent of the population of Chicago – an American diaspora spread around the globe. This not exceptional. With the waves of mass migration that have occurred over the last 70 years there many diasporas have been created, possibly more than 250 million people who have allegiances to several places and counties. The article “Long-Distance Parenting” by Ana Santos in the March 2015 Atlantic Monthly examines aspects of the Filipino diaspora. A state-encouraged policy of labor migration was introduced by the Philippines in the 1970s as a way to deal with high levels of unemployment and there are now about 10 million Filipino migrant workers living in other countries. Many of these live away from home for years or decades. They maintain some connection with their children and families by sending remittances and also balikbayan boxes – gift packages filled with goods and presents. Even though they have strong allegiances to their place of origin their lives are multi-centred.


Highway as Place with a History. This mural is at Aurora and 105th in Seattle.

I do not regard with dismay these reports of a large proportion of the population either moving or wanting to move elsewhere.  I do not think they should be interpreted as evidence that millions of people are unplaced or disembedded.  Instead I think they reveal that place and place experiences has to be understood as more than lifelong or long-term dwelling somewhere.  For many people place experiences are by choice multi-centred, they consist of relatively short-term encounters.  Whether this makes them shallower or less authentic in some way is an open question, which I expect to explore in future posts.