A quest to discover why people’s sense of direction varies so wildly
Let me tell you a few things about my relationship with the points of the compass, and then we’ll jump right to the meat of this thing.
At shopping malls, my elder daughter frequently has to tell me where we parked. She is 5.
Once, while visiting Paris, I went out for a jog and got disoriented. Eventually I saw a police officer, and I pulled from my shoe the address where we were staying. “Ah,” he said, nodding. “You want to go back to Paris.”
On a quest many years ago to climb the highest mountain on Vancouver Island, a pal and I got so lost that there was no turning back, because it just wasn’t clear which way back was. It wasn’t clear where forward was, either, except that we’d seen a plane fly in over the ridge ahead, so we went that way. (Did I mention that my pal was bleeding from a head wound?) It was a long shot but—don’t you see?—it was the only shot, because that slot in the horizon was our lone landmark.
I am like Captain Peter “Wrong Way” Peachfuzz on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show, who was so navigationally inept that the crew kept him on a fake bridge, with dummy instruments, so that he’d think he was in charge while the ship was in fact being steered elsewhere. My instincts are reliably wrong—which is as good as their being reliably right. You can take a “gut” reading and—Hello, Cleveland!—go do the opposite.
I tell you this not as a pathetic cry for help, or a claim to a perverse kind of pride, but to try to understand: Why does people’s sense of direction vary so wildly?
My own case by no means defines the low ground. There is a woman in my hometown of Vancouver—I can’t tell you who because she’s only described, not named, in the journal Neuropsychologia—who suffers from a pathology called “developmental topographical disorientation.” She’s in her 40s, and in most ways fully functioning—she can watch TV and read the newspaper and even get to and from work so long as she doesn’t deviate one iota from her regular route. But she can also get lost on the way home from the bus stop. She can’t make and store accurate mental images of her environment.
This kind of impairment is vanishingly rare, but it does make you wonder. Are those of us with more moderate symptoms different in kind or just degree? Is there a genetic component to this?
My father, in the Second World War, was a navigator and he steered a Lancaster bomber unerringly on missions over the Ruhr. His mother was so spatially adept that she played Scrabble looking at the board upside down. She hosed me in a game on her 100th birthday. If there is a heritable component to good mental mapmaking, then I somehow ran between the raindrops.
And what about the preindustrial people who, we’re led to believe, were so much better at navigating than we GPS-equipped moderns are now? It’s probably true. But not because some primal sixth sense dried up when we stopped relying on it. The San of the Kalahari are lauded for their almost magical navigational instincts. But it turns out that if fog sets in, they’re screwed.
In other words, to the degree that innate differences matter, they’re trumped by something a lot simpler: Some of us aren’t paying attention.
As psychologist Kenneth Hill of St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, put it in an influential paper, directional “instincts” aren’t inherited but acquired, by whole lifetimes of training and practice. Those Kalahari San just got good at reading “wayfinding” clues. They learned to walk with their eyes open.
What does it mean to “know where you are”? Here’s how my dad the navigator would have answered that question: It means you can pinpoint your position on a map. But if I tell you I know where I am, what I probably mean is, I know the way home. And that’s a flimsier kind of knowledge. Route knowledge tells me what roads I have to take to get there—not where “there” is. Survey knowledge tells me the locations of trails and landmarks relative to each other: a mental map.
Hill believes that most people rely on route knowledge to get around, and are therefore a lot closer to being lost at any given time than they think they are. When route knowledge is all you have, you may become “vulnerable to being turned around.” If the birds eat the breadcrumb trail, you’re hooped.
Of course, just knowing this is a great boon. Because if navigating is about learning better habits out there in the wild—rather than choosing our moms and dads well—then it’s something we can all get better at.
Most books on the subject don’t go beyond banal tips like “carry a notebook,” “ask directions,” and “allow time to get lost.” Some simple tips, however, are genuinely useful. Like: Remember to turn around from time to time and look at the landscape from that angle. Or: Choose a base point and make short forays in the cardinal directions, always returning to the base point. (Repeat systematically, extending the length of each excursion until useful information arises.)
I once tried, after getting turned around while tracking a squirrel or something, to make a bush compass the way Anthony Hopkins did in The Edge. (Hopkins is an intellectual whose plane crashes, and he relies on book learnin’ to survive.) To make a compass, you magnetize a sewing needle by rubbing it on fabric 20 times in one direction, from point to eye. Then you place the needle on a leaf and float the leaf on water. The needle should swing round to magnetic north. For me, it just kept pointing to my pants.
Let me say this, though, about getting lost. It’s going to seem to run against the grain of everything we’ve been talking about, sketchy navigational sense and how to fix it. But what if a dicky compass isn’t something you really want to fix?
Since I’ve become a family man, it’s really not cool for me to go off half-cocked with no map and no ETA when there are little kids at home kind of depending on my return. So I haven’t once had the feeling, Jesus: I have no idea where I am. And you know what? I miss it.
True, you don’t want to get genuinely stone-cold lost in the backcountry—it’s a terrifying thing. But to be a little bit lost, momentarily flummoxed with a fair amount of confidence that you will soon be unflummoxed, is exhilarating. It’s the opposite of bourgeois complacency and overprogrammed routine.
Being lost—and I think at some level we all get this—is the kind of character builder you can’t route around. “In the middle of my life I came to myself within a dark wood, where the straight way was lost.” That’s Dante’s idea of hell. But it’s also the place where, according to the epic poem, you find yourself. The dark wood, once you’ve punched through, gives onto a kind of paradise, the newly tempered self shining in the light, the struggle forgotten. It’s a great outcome.
So long as you can remember where you parked.
Excerpted from Explore (Sept.-Oct. 2009), a Canada-based outdoor adventure magazine marked by consistently exceptional writing.